One thing was clear to me when I moved here eight years ago: everyone has a story of how they ended up in Omaha. People were – and are – so welcoming, and were eager to share their story. Stories from “native” Omahans telling their history of tradesmen and butchers who established the Jewish Community, stories of David Rosenberg who sponsored so many people and saved them from the fate of the Holocaust, to Shirley Goldstein and how she made this community a beacon for Russian Jewry. I even found comfort in that first year, talking to many young families who had grown up or lived elsewhere but had found their way home to Omaha. It seemed that no matter where we were in our own journeys, the common thread we shared was that we all came here.
That is why I am so excited that the In[HEIR]itance project is working in Omaha this year: they are telling the story of how so many different people came to call Omaha “home.” The In[HEIR]itance project is a national theater group that practices an open artistic process to spark authentic community conversations about shared inheritances. It was created by two friends of mine, Jonathan Ross and Chantal Pavageaux, who created The in[heir]itance Project with the goal of making plays with interfaith and multiethnic communities around the country to democratize access to the artistic process, foster a sense of ownership of sacred texts, and expand the definition of community. In 2019 The in[heir]itance Project team has been working with the Omaha community to create an original piece of theater.
I have known Jon since our days as campers at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin and had known that he was working with sacred texts to drive community devised theater. When Steven and I saw him at my nephew’s Bris in New York and told him about the “Welcoming the Stranger” initiative that Beth El had done in sponsoring a family fleeing Syria, Jon started talking to us about The Exodus Plays.
The in[HEIR]itance Project had already created the first Exodus Play in Harlem, utilizing the text to explore the narratives of formerly incarcerated people’s experiences returning to their lives as a story of exodus. I had connected the work we were doing as Jews to fulfill the commandment in Exodus to “welcome the stranger for you were once strangers in a strange land, too,” but I hadn’t thought about Fatima and Ahmed’s journey as their own Exodus. This slight yet significant change in my own thinking has opened my own understanding of our shared sacred texts.
I think the most beautiful part of the In[HEIR]itance Project’s work in Omaha is it allows all people to share their story. Just like all those stories I heard from our community of how they got to Omaha – it is important to share those stories, and even more important to hear these stories. What I love about this project is that it allows us to zoom out, and share multiple perspectives and to look at our city not only from our vantage point, but to look at Omaha itself as a city of refuge.
To further support the refugee population, all proceeds from the performances in November will go back into our community, specifically supporting local refugee artists. In this way, The in[HEIR]itance Project work is just the beginning of yet another story, and another conversation. The goal is that we continue to share our stories of where we came from and how we got here. To hear the stories of our neighbors, and even of strangers, to better understand our community and our city.
One of the actors who has been helping bring these stories to life is 24-year-old Sandra was born in Iraq and came to Omaha at age 11 with her family with special refugee status. She explained to me that the special just meant that her mom worked for the US Army as a translator and so she and her family were able to come here as refugees. “What I love most about this In[HEIR]itance Project is that it involves many different parts of the community in the making the art. I have always been involved with theater production or arts projects that were more closed door, but I really enjoyed being able to share my story – my family’s story – and to share our story in a new way of storytelling.” Sandra was a part of the open rehearsals that took place in late September around Omaha, including an evening at Beth El and another at the JCC. Community members in attendance were asked to help shape the scenes, to play roles as they are being formed, to ask questions with the director and playwright in the room so the community is shaping and reshaping content in real time. After one of these sessions I asked Sandra how it felt as an actor to be portraying someone else’s refugee story. “Even though I am acting and playing someone else’s story, a lot of aspects of this play has come from my family’s story as well. Even though the path might be different, the journey is still the same.”
Don and Andi Goldstein were in attendance at one of the open rehearsals. Don said, “I know my folks would have been very happy to promote something like this and we are happy to carry it on.” Supporting Human Rights has been important for the Goldsteins as a way to carry on Shirley’s legacy. The intersection of refugee stories with the text of Exodus makes it a conversation about human rights. “The whole purpose of this was to connect the Exodus project with my folks and the human rights that’s why we got involved.”
Seeing the In[HEIR]itance Project team at work is to witness art being formed. They take the stories that are offered from this community and turn it into a unique piece of theater. Watching how they lead a room full of people months ago to choose one word to describe “Exodus” and another to describe “Omaha” and then seeing how those tropes were translated into scenes. Then listening to actors run through a scene and then being asked how that made me feel, what questions I had. In some way, every person who attended a workshop, a rehearsal, an informational meeting about the In[HEIR]itance Project has their fingerprints on this piece of work. It is a true reflection of the story of coming to Omaha.
There will be multiple performances of the In[HEIR]itance Project play titled EXODUS: Resettlement. The truly unique artistic process that they brought to Omaha allowed the entire community to be a part of the art making. From open and honest discussions when the team was learning about Omaha, to lending voice as they shaped the play, to speaking up in open-rehearsals, the In[HEIR]itance Project allowed all of Omaha to be a part of the art making process.
EXODUS: Resettlement has been created through a unique practice of open artistic process designed to spark a community conversation about refugee narratives, past and present, in Omaha. In[HEIR]itance Project artists have spent the year working with local artists in and out of the refugee community to devise an original play examining the intersections of refugee experiences, Omaha’s history, airport travel and the Book of Exodus. There will be humor, grief, elation, music, dance, and you will be invited to check your baggage at the door.
Please note that all box office proceeds to go establish a new grant for refugee artists in Omaha in partnership with Lutheran Family Services
Friday, Nov. 15, 7 p.m. at St. Luke’s United Methodist Church
Sunday, Nov. 17, 7 p.m. at Beth El Synagogue
Monday, Nov. 18, 7 p.m. at the Union for Contemporary Art
Tuesday, Nov. 19, 7 p.m. at the Union for Contemporary Art
Saturday, Nov. 23, 2 p.m. at the Holland Center
Saturday, Nov. 23, 7 p.m. at the Holland Center
Tickets can be purchased at https://inheiritance.org/ blog/tickets-exodus-resettlement/.