IRAQI-ISRAELI PLAYING AN EGYPTIAN IN CHICAGO: An interview with Sasson Gabay, star of the Tony award-winning ‘The Band’s Visit.’

By George Castle, Special to Chicago Jewish News

In many ways, what has become Sasson Gabay’s signature career role at age 70 was a natural for him, growing up in an Iraqi Jewish household in Israel.

Chicagoans will get their first extended view of Gabay’s dramatic and comic acting and singing chops starting Sept. 3, when the 10-time Tony Award-winning play “The Band’s Visit” begins a two-week run at Broadway in Chicago’s Cadillac Palace Theatre.

To be sure, Gabay is thoroughly Israeli in sensibility, custom and loyalty, having moved from Baghdad at age 3. But the mixture of Arab and old-line Jewish culture in his home seemed to set him up perfectly for playing an Arab, in this case the lead role as a officious Egyptian bandmaster who lightens up in close proximity to the Jews of a small Israeli desert hamlet.

A scene from “The Band’s Visit.”

An acclaimed veteran of Israeli films, stage and TV who has only toe-dipped in the American entertainment world, Gabay’s portrayal of an authority figure has turned out to be his late-career role of a lifetime.

“This role is a turning point in my career,” said Gabay in a phone interview. He can recite his character, backward and forward and in his sleep, after playing it on Broadway for a full year of appreciative audiences.

Now Gabay is synonymous with the role of “Col. Tewfiq” since he originated it with “The Band’s Visit” origins as a 2007 low-budget Israeli movie that became a surprise hit. Now the comedic film has been turned into a musical, wowing theatergoers on the big stage in the Big Apple and now getting its just-due exposure all over the U.S.

“It’s opened doors for me to get to be known in the industry, and the movie to be shown in film festivals,” Gabay said.  “Originally, they wanted to audition me for the film. But I told the producer you don’t have to look for an actor. I know this man.

“It was an instant feeling. Sometimes, you immediately and instinctively behave like the character. It has happened to me here and there in my career. Sometimes you have to dig to find that connection to the character. With this role, it was instinctive.

Sasson Gabay

“I liked (Tewfiq’s) gentle behavior, old-school, very polite. I used to hear my late father, Moshe Gabay, speaking in English with an Arab accent. I took a lot from that in this character. There are some elements of my father in this character. 

“There is also my view of the character. I find things in my life that relate to the (Arab) idea of being polite, to be proper, try to control yourself.”

Gabay has played an Arab before, portraying the Syrian defense minister in a production about Israeli spy Eli Cohen and an Afghan guide in Sylvester Stallone’s “Rambo III.”

With advance promotions via TV commercials in the Chicago market, prospective theatergoers can briefly glimpse Gabay and his fellow actors playing an Alexandria Police band who are booked to perform in an Israeli city in 1996. But due to mispronunciation of their destination at the Tel Aviv bus station, the band is misdirected to a smaller, isolated community.

Stuck in the town overnight with no return bus until the next day, the band members and Israelis discover each other’s humanity.  Folks from different cultures naturally mix once they get to know each other. Left unsaid in the narrative is that the setting is less than 20 years after the Camp David Accords, when Israelis and Egyptians were still warily taking the measure of each other in personal settings.

“They look at each other with a bit of suspicion,” Gabay said. “But immediately they find out they are human beings.  It’s a not a political film or play. (In that time period) a lot of Israeli tourists went to Egypt, but not as many came over from Egypt.  It’s a musical about finding salvation in art.

“What is nice about this story is that each character, including mine, is open to a certain journey in his life, due to pain. Each character benefits from this sudden dynamic.  It emphasizes the need of each of us to relate to the other. We need each other and we are alike.”

A chip off the old block is Gabay’s son, Adam, who plays “Papi.” Further star power on the tour is provided by Chilina Kennedy in the lead female role of an Israeli woman named “Dina.” Kennedy is best known for her run as one of the top Jewish songwriters of all time — Carole King in Broadway’s “Beautiful – The Carole King Musical.”

Gabay resembles Oscar-winning English actor Ben Kingsley. So one might think he would have wanted to follow suit of so many popular performers and directors from Europe and other parts of the world to hit the big time in the U.S.

But Gabay chose not to sell part of his Israeli and creative soul for the chance at true international stardom.

“I didn’t have this kind of goal,” he said of hitting it big here. “Sure, every actor wants to expose himself to the largest audience.  Luckily, I have done some international movies in Europe and the U.S.  I did come here, hired an agent, but after a while, I wanted to go back to Israel. I think I did the right thing.

“Here, I would have been classified as a Middle Eastern character. In Israel, I’ve done such a vast variety of characters, like a Hungarian Jew in the Holocaust.  Also Shakespeare, Cyrano de Bergerac. I wouldn’t have done that here.”

For the last two decades, Gabay has been the leading actor of the Beit Lessin Theatre company in Tel Aviv, starring in their productions of “Uncle Vanya,” “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” “Rain Man,” “Cyrano de Bergerac” and many Israeli plays.

Gabay’s career in TV has embraced all genres: drama, comedy and satire. He has starred in many Israeli series including: “Kastner Trial,” “Siton,” “Shtisel” and the political satire “Polishuk,” for which he won an Israeli Television Academy Award for Best Lead Actor in a Comic Series. As for Israeli cinema, his role in “Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem,” earned him an Ophir Award for Best Supporting Actor.

In “The Band’s Visit” an Egyptian police officer and an Israeli woman learn to see the humanity in each other.

The impressive string of credits was amassed by a mature man for whom one could have only predicted stage fright. Gabay was a “shy” child in Israel. But then he acted in a skit in school. “I felt like a fish in water,” he recalled. Growing up, he’d listen to weekly radio plays, employing his imagination as the storyline proceeded.  After service in the Israeli Defense Forces, Gabay studied both psychology and the theater.

All the while, he was a proud product of the Iraqi Jewish culture in his home. Gabay was part of the sudden, forced diaspora of 130,000 Iraqi Jews in the early 1950s. A 2,000-year-old community was exiled after Israel was born. Long-established Jewish communities all over the Arab world would suffer similar fates.

His father had worked in the textile business in Baghdad after moving from a small town, Kefel, where his family was in charge of maintaining the tomb of an ancient Jewish prophet. 

Once in Israel, the Gabay family had to adapt to a new culture.

“It was a matter of trying to assimilate,” Gabay said. “Israel was made up of many elements. My family came with their language, food, music. Our neighbors could be from Poland or Germany.

“Bit by bit, the Israeli culture took over with the kids. At home, we were still Iraqi. Still today, my favorite food is kubba (a cracked wheat dumpling).  It’s Iraqi cream of wheat, but ground very thin.  You make bowls out of it and stuff it with meat and eat it with things like okra or other vegetables or white rice.”

Growing up learning Hebrew at school and on the street, young Sasson became the Hebrew instructor at home for his mother while she took formal lessons in a class.  But she still listened to Arabic music.

“Iraqi families were more religious than the Europeans,” Gabay said. “In the U.S., you have to remind yourself you are Jewish. Not in Israel. You’re Jewish, it’s taken for granted.”

Gabay’s Jewish identity, though, was secular as it was for the majority of Israelis.

“Bit by bit, in our family, the practice of religion, going to synagogue every day, changed,” Gabay said. “My father started going to synagogue every day (as in Iraq), then once a week, then less and less.”

Having an Arabic background in Israel did have one drawback early on for fledgling performers like Gabay

“If you spoke in Hebrew with a heavy Arab accent, you couldn’t find work as an actor,” he said. “But I’m still proud of my culture, my language. I know how to speak Arabic, but do not know how to read and write it.”

Now, destiny brings Gabay to Chicago to play an Arab and connect with Jews in an unforgettable night at the theater. It’s his role of a lifetime.

“The Band’s Visit” runs from Tuesday, Sept. 3, to Sunday, Sept. 15, at the Cadillac Palace Theater, 151 W. Randolph St., Chicago. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays, and Sept. 15. Saturdays are at 8 p.m. Matinees are at 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, and on Wednesday, Sept. 4.

Individual tickets range in price from $39 to $106 with a select number of premium tickets available. Tickets are available now for groups of 10 or more by calling Broadway In Chicago Group Sales at 312/ 977-1710 or e-mailing GroupSales@BroadwayInChicago.com. For more information, visit www.BroadwayInChicago.com. 

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