New York (JTA) – There’s a long and poignant story behind the T-shirt that Ari’el Stachel often wears these days. It says, in Hebrew letters, “Totzeret Teman” — “Product of Yemen.” The unexpected juxtaposition of two cultures, Israeli and Arab, is as fascinating and complex as Stachel himself.
Stachel, 26, is an actor and singer making his Broadway debut in “The Band’s Visit,” a charming new musical starring Tony Shalhoub (“Monk”) and the rising star Katrina Lenk. The play is based on the 2007 award-winning Israeli movie about an Egyptian police band stranded in a tiny Israeli village in the Negev Desert.
Stachel plays Haled, an Egyptian trumpeter, who like his fellow band mates quietly connects with his Jewish hosts during a long night of eating, flirting, roller skating and, of course, music making.
The show’s theme of how Arabs and Jews come to terms with each other is perhaps not nearly as dramatic as Stachel’s own journey of coming to terms with himself. The tall, dark-skinned performer spent nearly a third of his life telling people he was half African-American.
In fact, Stachel is the California-born son of an Israeli-Yemeni father and an Ashkenazi mother from New York.
“In third grade [at a Berkeley, Calif., day school], someone told me I was too black to be Jewish,” he recalled. “In sixth grade, I switched to a public school, with maybe nine students of color there out of 900. I started to see that I was perceived as black, so I re-created my identity as an African-American; all my friends were black.”
Stachel recalled visiting his best buddy’s home, where “his grandmother would treat me like a black kid, cooking me soul food. For the first time, I felt like I was part of a community without any reservation. I felt most comfortable and accepted through this African-American grandmother.”
Only in private did the conflicted teenager embrace his heritage, listening to the Israeli-Yemeni singer Tsion Golan, eating his favorite food – the Yemeni Israeli pastry jachnun — and often visiting his family in Israel for a month at a time.
Stachel didn’t have a bar mitzvah in California, but “I was in Israel during the last week of my 13th year, and my uncle, who is more religious, was dismayed. He set up a Yemeni bar mitzvah for me four days before I turned 14.”
A year later (after realizing he wasn’t going to make it in the NBA), Stachel took his mother’s advice and tried out for his school musical. He got the role, realized he could sing, switched to an arts school and moved to New York in 2009 to attend New York University’s musical theater program.
The watershed moment in both Stachel’s personal and professional lives came when he first read the script for “The Band’s Visit” in 2015, which opened Off-Broadway the following year. Reading the character of Haled, the handsome Egyptian musician who is obsessed with the jazz trumpeter Chet Baker, “I knew immediately that it needed to be my role.”
It took the show’s creative team seven auditions by Stachel over nine months to arrive at the same conclusion. There were moments of deep doubt and frustration, the actor acknowledged.
“Looking at my parents, seeing where I come from, there was this feeling that there’s no way my dreams are ever going to come true,” he said. “But over the course of those nine months, I started to believe in myself, and by the final audition it was just mine.”
The Atlantic Theater Company’s Off-Broadway production of “The Band’s Visit,” with music and lyrics by David Yazbek (“Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown,” “The Full Monty”) and book by Itamar Moses (another son of Israeli parents), earned rave reviews. And for Stachel, who garnered Drama Desk and Lucille Lortel Award nominations for best featured actor in a musical, it changed everything.
“The role allows me to exist as myself, proudly, as a Middle Eastern person,” Stachel said. “For eight or 10 years of my life, I couldn’t tell people I was of Yemeni descent without breaking into a cold sweat. Now, because of the visibility of this role, because people are accepting us with open arms, I can be myself. I get to wear this baseball cap [offstage] which says ‘shalom, salaam, and peace.’ I feel like I straddle all these identities.”