Am I white? Am I POC?”
This question frames Avi Aharoni’s solo performance, Operation: Immigration, at this year’s Minnesota Fringe Festival. Don’t think, however, that the hour-long show is some self-indulgent, high-brow, social-justice warrior fever dream. Aharoni dedicates his allotted hour to honor his late father, Menachem Aharoni, and Menachem’s emigration from Iran to Israel and, ultimately, to the U.S. The story, one of intense paternal admiration, is also intertwined with Aharoni’s personal quest to make sense of a complicated constellation of identities.
From his first moments onstage, Aharoni is there for a good time, if not a long time. He is self-deprecating, he opens the show with a wild, ukulele rap number, and there is at least one dick joke. Though it is a one-man show, Aharoni is joined by director Robert Dorfman, who butts in whenever the tone veers too far toward preachy or reverential. The repartee between the two men has the effect of welcoming the audience into a great, spontaneous familiarity. When is the last time that you heard a Jew tell a story without being interrupted by another Jew? … That’s what I thought.
Aharoni has many gifts that become apparent over the course of the evening, but one of the most impressive is his ability to contextualize his family’s history in the complicated sociopolitical and geographical landscape of the Middle East. He explains cultural dynamics clearly. His use of a Beastie Boys parody to refresh our memories about the Six Days War is completely delightful, detailed, and effective.
The show is not exactly autobiographical. Aharoni’s own presence in the narrative is sporadic (most of the story took place before he was born), but what we don’t learn about Aharoni in specific story beats, we receive through his intense enthusiasm for the experience of telling the story. In certain moments, he slips effortlessly into Hebrew; both he and the play come alive in a new way. At one point, he gestures to the small, blank stage and conjures the image of a cramped, Middle Eastern tenement within its boundaries. Aharoni is also a deft physical performer, frequently taking on physicalities, dialects, and bearings of characters in the show. Kenny, his mother’s gay, South African roommate in Israel, was a crowd favorite.
With the bare minimum onstage, Aharoni shapes the epic tale of his father’s life with charisma, sweat, and tears. What Aharoni returns to at the end of the story is the same question about identity that he began with. As the son of an Iranian-Israeli father and a Jewish woman from Minnesota, is he white or is he a person of color? He tells a story of visiting Israel with his father and seeing the pieces of the country that his father literally created with his bare hands. We understand that, of course, he should feel at home in a country that his father helped to build, just as he should feel at home in the U.S., where his mother was born and where he grew up. He wrestles with feeling insufficiently qualified to claim either label authentically. This question is equally compelling as the main “plot” of the show about his father and could easily warrant a more direct exploration. Hopefully, he’s saving that for next year’s Fringe.
Operation: Immigration performs at Mixed Blood Theatre as a part of the Minnesota Fringe Festival. Remaining performances are August 10 at 1 p.m. and August 11 at 5:30 p.m. Tickets are $14 and are available online.