IT SOUNDS BETTER IN AMHARIC by Yossi Vassa and Shai Ben Attar, directed by Ben Attar, with Vassa. Presented by Nephesh Theatre as part of the Ashkenaz Festival at Harbourfront Centre's Studio Theatre (235 Queens Quay West). September 4-5 at 8 pm. $15. 416-973-4000. Rating: NNNNN
Sure, theatre's overrun with one-person shows, but when was the last time you saw an Ethiopian-Israeli stand-up comic performing solo? Thought so.
"There are still no other actors or writers who are doing what I'm doing," says Yossi Vassa on the phone from Tel Aviv.
Described by some as Israel's answer to Eddie Murphy, Vassa brings his one-man show, It Sounds Better In Amharic, to Toronto this week as part of the Ashkenaz Festival Of New Yiddish Culture.
The autobiographical piece, co-written with director Shai Ben Attar, chronicles Vassa's family's arduous journey from a small village in Ethiopia to the Holy Land, which was marked by a tragic stop on the way: a Sudanese refugee camp, where Vassa lost his grandmother and two brothers.
"About 4,000 people died in the camps from hunger and disease," Vassa explains in broken English. "When older Ethiopians watch the show, I can see them cry. For some of them, this is the first time anyone's talked about this stuff in a public way."
Vassa, who emigrated to Israel at 10, developed his comedy as a rebellious student studying at a yeshiva with other Ethiopians and Sabras, many of whom were from broken homes. Later, he put himself through theatre school at Haifa University by taping and selling a stand-up comedy routine about the comic cultural confusion of being Ethiopian in modern-day Israel.
He quickly became an icon and role model to a community of 80,000 Ethiopian Jews, especially after he snagged a regular spot on the weekly TV show Am Yisrael Live, Israel's answer to Saturday Night Live.
In It Sounds Better In Amharic, his comic observations range from Israeli stereotypes about Ethiopians to family violence.
Performing for fellow Ethiopians in Amharic is one thing; connecting with the broader Israeli audience in Hebrew and the world in English is another.
"A lot of people have told me that this story is so much like what happened to them when they came to Israel," says Vassa, who's done the 50-minute show about 500 times in Hebrew and took an English version to the U.S. and Winnipeg.
"People can relate, especially the Sephardim, who experienced a lot of discrimination when they arrived in Israel. What I'm finding in English-speaking areas is that it applies to immigrants everywhere. The only difference is how you get to a country."
Vassa avoids discussing the Arab-Jewish situation in the Middle East, saying only, "It will take some time for theatre and the arts to deal with it in a true way."
But he does agree that there is such a thing as a Jewish sense of humour, regardless of one's country of origin.
"You can see it even in the humour of someone like Billy Crystal," he says. "We tend to laugh about our suffering. We overcome our problems through comedy."