“We love Arabs” in dance

Savannah Morning News

June 18, 2017

There we are, settled in the front row at the College of Charleston at this year’s Spoleto Festival waiting to see a dance performance, “We Love Arabs,” seated in front of two Savannah friends (what are the chances of that?), leaning back and talking about – what else? – restaurants in this historic city to the north wondering where and what to eat next (there just aren’t enough hours in the day to dine) when the woman next to us intervened with directions and opinions.

“Just don’t move here,” she said, albeit pleasantly, echoing the views of anyone who finds themselves living in an altogether interesting but popular – maybe trendy – town. (Can you say Savannah?)

How nice not to have a dog in that fight, I thought.

How nice to stay in a hotel like the Francis Marion that offers umbrellas to guests in case of rain, stamps at the front desk for the spontaneous postcard, visible attempts at recycling and a free bottle of wine if you dine in the hotel restaurant.

How nice to be in a town where people bike.

“Didn’t I just see you on stage at the Dock Street Theater?” I say to a bicyclist as we stood on a corner, just a couple of flummoxed tourists, turning the map upside down, trying to figure out where we were. The young woman on a bike was wearing shorts and sandals and carrying with what looked to be a violin case on her back. She nods, confirming her presence in the chamber music concert we just exited.  At the next corner I recognize someone else from the same concert. He was walking and carrying a larger instrument, probably a cello.

Then, sitting in the audience, one thing led to another, and maybe because of the nature of the pending performance, the woman-in-the-front-row asked if we had seen the Charleston Holocaust Memorial, which, like everything else seemed to be off King Street. Later that night we walked over. It was dusk when we approached the 17-foot-high iron gates that sat in the shadow of a much taller statue of John C. Calhoun so it was a little hard to make out what we were seeing.

The gates loomed large. They encircled a stark and unadorned empty space of concrete save for what appeared to be an enormous rumpled blanket in the middle. By now because we are accustomed (and hardened) to seeing itinerant people sleeping that way It seemed as if a homeless person or persons might be lying under what could have been a tarp. Then we walked closer. We didn’t see any movement. We look to a police officer standing nearby. Go ahead, he said, you can approach it. So we do. We touch the covering. It was brass. Alongside  the monument we read the meaning of the tarp. It symbolizes a tallit, a Jewish prayer shawl that covers the dead.

Outside the gates we read the names of Charleston survivors who survived the concentration camps, the architect (Jonathan Levi) and the generous local benefactors. The monument was a very unassuming, quiet, powerful statement especially for a town with less than a half million people in the metropolitan area (maybe 300,000 in Charleston proper), a small fraction of whom are Jewish.

Monuments are one way to remind us of shameful chapters in the world. Books, art and documentaries are others. But so is a work of dance, such as “We Love Arabs” except this two-man performance or dialogue between an Israeli choreographer (Hillel Kogan) and an Arab dancer (Adi Boutrous) goes so much further than what you might think of as dance. It’s talky, for starters, philosophical talk as the Israeli tries to work out the conundrum of identity, land, politics, space, existence, generalization, ethnic stereotyping and the issue of co-existing and living together as Arabs and Jews, two people who share so much history and culture.

At one point the Israeli asks the Arab to take a magic marker and draw a Jewish symbol on the Israeli’s shirt. He draws a Star of David. Then the Israeli takes the marker and after thinking starts to draw on the Arab dancer’s forehead. What is it? the Arab asked. “It’s one of those” – and then Kogan holds up his fingers in the shape of a half-moon, stumbling before he says, “You know, a croissant, a crescent like you have on your mosques” – to which the Arab dancer says with deadpan expression, “Yes, but I am Christian.”

It’s cerebral, ironic, homoerotic, funny. It’s energetic. They are dancers, after all.

Finally, Kogan asks Boutrous to fetch a bowl. He brings it back. It’s hummus, he tells us in the audience. Kogan, the Israeli, dips his hand in the bowl and starts to smear the mashed chickpeas on Boutrous’ face. Then he invites Boutrous to do the same. Hummus, he says, is Israeli. Then he stops and corrects himself. It’s Middle Eastern. It belongs to Arabs, too.

Finally, the two dancers approach the audience. They hand out pieces of pita, they offer the bowl of hummus. They invite people to join in. It’s an act of communion. Between Jew and Arab. It’s symbolic. It’s art. It’s Spoleto.

 

 

 

Samita Wolfe: larger than life

Savannah Morning News

June 11, 2017

Direction is helpful. If you know where you’re going.

Ambition is useful. If you know where to direct it.

Passion is important. If you know what you are passionate about.

But what if you are 18, your mother died a few months after you graduated high school and you don’t have a clue? What if all you have is confidence, optimism, good sense, instinct you can trust, and middle school experience in a Naval Sea Cadet program, which your mom was smart enough to find for you.

Meet Samita Wolfe. Set decorator, prop master, art director, production designer, parachute rigger in the Navy, cow wrangler and – as of three months ago – owner of Savannah’s Film Biz Recycling, a nonprofit, one-stop-prop-shop for all the stuff Savannah’s burgeoning movie industry needs immediately for the perfect 20-second shot and then throws away.

Huh?

Samita follows her own path. One year out of high school in Woodbine, Ga., months after 9/11, she was waiting tables in Jacksonville, Fl., and feeling adrift when a customer doubling as a recruiter mentioned the Navy. It struck a chord. Samita signed up on the spot without telling family or friends. She didn’t want anyone talking her out of it and she knew they would try.

“I wasn’t in great shape or anything but I knew how to march military style,” she said. “I learned that at the Naval Sea Cadet Program. That’s what impressed them.”

By the time she left the Navy she had a title: Aircrew Survival Equipment Technician. She was the one who had to make sure everything was shipshape and in good working order before her fellow Naval parachuters opened the door, jumped out of the plane and pulled the cord. With the Navy, she spent three years in Japan with stops in Singapore, Hong Kong, Malaysia and Thailand. She lived on the Kitty Hawk aircraft carrier where she was charged with maintaining search and rescue equipment. She was one of 5,000 people on the ship, a vessel she called “a little town.” Ten percent were women.

Out of the Navy, holding a GI Bill, interested in taking advantage of the Hope Scholarship, she enrolled at Savannah State University in environmental sciences.

Fast forward a few years. Six hours away from a degree, Samita crossed paths with the visionary and quixotic George Dawes Green – author, instigator, founder of The Moth – just when he was assembling a merry band of raconteurs who would trek through small town Georgia communities in a bus, set up shop for the afternoon, step out onto a makeshift stage and weave stories. He called his dream The Unchained Tour. But who could he find to wrangle those wily storytellers? Who could keep the cranky, refurbished school bus up and running short of spit and duct tape? Who would sell the merch, cook for the vegans and vegheads, placate the mischief-makers, fix a flat tire?

Who you gonna call?

Green, always a quick read, knew the answer.

Samita got the nod – again, with no experience, no proven track record of handling the unexpected, of feeding and keeping track of a crew of freewheeling, independent rascals.

It was life-changing, she said. This South Georgia woman saw – once again – she could organize. She could coordinate, communicate, codify. She could deal with crisis. After working at Walls’ Barbeque in Savannah for could cook, she could cook.

After pulling off several tours she moved to New York City, where she always envisioned living. Without knowing what she would be doing or with whom, she made some contacts, did a little networking and found some gigs in the movie industry. Life was good. During lean times she found more jobs. She traveled with the Cusses. She hooked up with some folks on a farm in upstate New York where she herded cows and bottle-fed the calves.  But she always kept her house in Savannah. You never know, she said. One thing led to another. Right about the time she thought she might want to return to Savannah, she met a woman who headed a nonprofit outfit called Film Biz Recycling who wanted to pass along the business to Samita.

“I don’t know why exactly,” Samita, 34, said. “She had a good feeling about me. And I do like junk.”

You mean things like vintage suitcases, black and white tvs, flags, juke boxes, couches, lamps, chandeliers, globes, phone booths, bubble gum machines, canes, pillows, calculators?

Yup. In her warehouse on East Liberty Street, she’s got all the things people making movies, student projects, short films, commercials might want for a week and that’s all. In between that she hosts Wednesday craft night for anyone who might want to use her sewing machine or savoir-faire to put together something cool and original.

Who knows what’s next for this irrepressible 5-foot-10-inch redhead with the nerdy glasses who knows how to fake it ‘til you make it? Whatever it is it will probably end up a tattoo next to earlier chapters up and down her arms that include a crawfish from Woodbine days, a cleaver handle with electrical tape from Walls’ Barbeque, a cabbage from The Unchained Tour, a pouch of Red Man tobacco, a pecan tree and – of course – area code 912.