Ethiopian-born Yossi Vassa, who immigrated to Israel in 1985 as a seven-year-old, has performed his one-man show more than 150 times.Mixing comic patter with pathos, Israeli actor-comedian Yossi Vassa transports audiences back to his small village in Ethiopia’s Gondar region and into his neighborhood in Netanya, Israel as he takes the stage. In doing so, he uses his biting humor and his eye for poignant moments to create a better understanding of Israel’s unique Ethiopian Jewish community.
In his U.S. debut, Vassa is currently bringing his one-man stand up show It Sounds Better in Amharic, to American audiences. His tour includes more than 50 shows at college campuses including Yale, Harvard, and MIT, theaters in San Francisco, San Diego, Los Angeles and a number of festivals.
Vassa, who immigrated to Israel in 1985 as a seven-year-old with his family as part of Operation Moses, has performed his one-man show more than 150 times over the past year in Tel Aviv.
Appearing alone on the darkened stage as the show opens, Vassa begins his journey at the beginning by recreating the simple life he and his family had in his village in Gondar. Standing alone, carrying a big blue suitcase, he recalls: ‘Once upon a time in our village in Ethiopia, I saw a white guy. Unbelievable! For me, he was a medical miracle.’
From there, he describes how the white man, a Jewish Agency representative, explained to the villagers about Israel and how, if they could reach Sudan, they could soon be flown to the magical Jerusalem they knew about only from stories and legends.
Suddenly, he’s grabbing a cane, becoming the village elders, including his grandmother, who were energized by the chance to go to Jerusalem. ‘When my grandmother realized it was actually possible to get to Jerusalem before she died, she went nuts,’ he explains. ‘Everything we did somehow had to be related to Jerusalem. The donkeys had to face toward Jerusalem.’
‘Before every meal she would sing: Praise Jerusalem,’ Vassa says, pausing to mimic his grandmother and singing her song in Amharic. ‘Then she would say: ‘You may begin, but please – chew in the direction of the Wailing Wall.’
Jet sounds and ‘Heiveinu Shalom Aleichem’ signal the family’s arrival in Israel after a plane ride he described to The Jerusalem Post as ‘like going on a spaceship to Mars today.’ But after all the anticipation of going to Jerusalem, reality proves slightly different: Netanya. ‘Netanya – not Jerusalem – Netanya,’ says the stunned Vassa as he describes the newcomers’ first days in Israel.
In the play, Vassa pokes fun at the contrast between the African culture they left behind and modern Israeli hipsters. ‘I was walking down the street, and this guy comes up to me and he’s tattooed from head to foot. Man, that went out in Ethiopia a long time ago. And then this girl comes up to me and all she’s wearing are a few scanty pieces of cloth. In Africa, people walk around fully dressed now, so that amuses me.’
The Israeli Foreign Ministry is involved with bringing Vassa over, and the shows on campuses are being sponsored by the Hillel organization, according to his colleague Howard Rypp, the artistic director of the Nephesh Theater, which has hosted Vassa’s show for the last year.
Rypp says that Vassa isn’t worried that his uniquely Israeli brand of humor won’t adapt well into English for American audiences.
“We’ve adapted his show for an American audience,” he said. “There are three variations of his shows: the general Hebrew version he performs at the theater, a more educational adaptation that he takes to schools and institutions, and the English version, which is a combination of the first two.
Rypp added that Vassa has also added new material for the English version which is geared to American sensibilities. “Basically he’s assuming that the audiences know nothing about Ethiopia, and nothing about Israel,” he said.
Ripp said that the shows on American college campuses are being geared not only to Jewish students, but also to black organizations on campus.
“We think that black audiences will also be able to relate to Yossi’s message,” he said, adding,”Yossi’s adaption in English often contains a black-American dialect which feels very natural to him.”