By Indra Arriaga
The Child Behind the Eyes, written by Israeli playwright Nava Semel, is a one-woman show about a mother who has a son born with Down’s Syndrome. The mother has a sleepless night before her son, six years old, goes to school, in which she revisits their journey together from his birth, to the present. Through her personal journey, the audience understands the evolution of their love and the complex relationships with other family members and the community around them. Semel based the play on the real life story of actress Assi Eshed. The Child Behind the Eyes was written in the 1980s and remains a work of art that has stood the test of time, and it persists in the minds, hearts, and programming priorities of artists and audiences across the world, including Alaska. The Child Behind the Eyes, which debuted in Anchorage in a production by RKP at Out North some moons ago, continues to be part of the work of Anchorage-based actress Nava Sarracino, director Vivian Melde, and composer Christel Veraart. The Anchorage productions in of The Child Behind the Eyes included post-show panels with representatives of the Alaska Down Syndrome Congress, Stone Soup Group, and Hope Studios; non-profit organizations that provide resources and assistance for differently-abled individuals.
Erga Netz of Stichting Rainbow invited the Alaskan women to participate in a memorial symposium in Holland in 2018. This invitation not only celebrated Nava Semel who passed away at the young age of 63, but also deepened the women’s relationship with The Child Behind the Eyes. Sarracino was one of four actresses that performed scenes of the play for the memorial symposium, which played in Amsterdam and The Hague. According to Sarracino, “At the symposium what was so interesting to me is how different each show was depending on the country it came from and how it reflected the culture of that country. I don’t think it was in any way conscious but when the four shows were viewed together you could see how powerfully culture influences the arts.”
At the symposium, both Melde and Veraart served on a panel that included host Noam Semel, the late playwright’s husband and former General Director of the Cameri Theatre of Tel Aviv. The international panel included theater artists from Turkey and The Netherlands. When Veraart reflects on the symposium, she writes, “The week we spent at the symposium in the Netherlands was very special to me because, being Dutch, it was taking place in the country I grew up in. It was an incredibly moving week, in which we mourned the loss of a playwright most of us never met but with whom we all had connected in one way or another. The day we were invited to the Israeli embassy in The Hague, Noam Semel shared with us that it was exactly one year ago that he had lost his wife, as well as Neemdor, his mother. It was a very special evening in which the two of them, together with our group of actors, directors, and composers, shared a meal. Hosted by the Israeli ambassador, we sat around a big table and commemorated Nava Semel in story and song. During the symposium it was wonderful to meet everyone and to learn about their productions, their experiences, and plans for the future. After a week of sharing stories with each other in the Netherlands, it was hard to let each other go, and it will be a week that will be forever engraved in my memory.”
The Child Behind the Eyes persists as an substantial art form that speaks to different individuals and communities and under the guidance of the Alaskan women’s bond and continued collaboration, the play has a bright future ahead. Following the symposium, the artists decided to revive the show and applied, and were accepted for the 2019 Halifax Fringe Festival. The women will travel to Halifax, Nova Scotia to present the melodrama. Just as exciting is that they will present the play and host a community storytelling workshop at the end of September in Nome. The workshops in Nome will focus on themes within the play.
According to Melde, “We had a renewed energy around the importance of the play’s themes of love and bullying, which is universal. I have heard some incredible comments from audience members during post-show panels and how meaningful this show is. I see it as a catalyst for dialogue about how we treat one another and those who are different than us; whether it’s color, ability, language, sexuality, economic strata, hair type, etc. We are all human and we are imperfect. But, we can learn to live and to love and to help those who need help in this world.” To keep the show going isn’t easy, with the turmoil that the Alaska State Council on the Arts is currently undergoing, the production team lost travel funding, but The Child Behind the Eyes is so important to the artists and audiences that the women held a private house performance recently in Anchorage to help with travel costs to Nova Scotia, according to Melde, “It was important enough for me to dip into savings/retirement to make things happen. I am happy to represent Alaska with our Canadian neighbors and perhaps next spring, our Israeli friends too!”