‘Not by Bread Alone’s’ Usher Syndrome cast will leave you in awe at the Kennedy Center

Imagine inhabiting a world consisting totally of darkness and silence.  Such is the universe of Nalaga’at, the Israeli deaf-blind acting ensemble that performs this week as part of the Kennedy Center’s World Stages International Theater Festival.

Nalaga’at, the only deaf-blind acting troupe in the world, is an innovative endeavor comprised of individuals with Usher Syndrome.  This rare condition originates from a recessive gene, inherited from both parents, which causes deafness at birth, accompanied by gradual blindness.

Nalaga’at grapples with the challenge of isolation and relates to the audience through drama, as the eleven-member cast adroitly presents its signature production, “Not by Bread Alone”.

The actors have remarkable rapport.  Jewish and Muslim actors work together harmoniously.  The three actors who have speech, speak for the others.  They know multiple languages, including English.  Each actor also has an interpreter, to facilitate communication and stage transitions.  During the show, a drum-beat announces each new scene to the actors, who feel the drum’s vibrations.

The program’s title comes from Devarim (Deuteronomy) 8:3: “He fed you manna…, to teach you that not by bread alone does man live, but rather by the expression of His word.”  Nalaga’at demonstrates that, while bread is the proverbial staff of life, emotional survival and living fully demand more.

As the audience take their seats, the actors, wearing toques and aprons, rhythmically knead the dough, which they then bake in six ovens.  They present insights into their struggles, hopes and dreams, as the tantalizing aroma of baking bread wafts among the audience.

Most of the actors have never seen a sunset.  Genia cried when she held her sister’s new baby, knowing that she would never see it.  Yet they have no time for self-pity.  The occasional serious moments are liberally interspersed with wry humor, puns, mime and slapstick.

Researchers at Rockefeller University have discovered that our noses can distinguish one trillion scents.  By comparison, our eyes can see a few million colors, while we can hear about 340,000 tones. These findings confirm what Nalaga’at’s actors intuitively know: sense of smell is a powerful means of reaching out to others.

One forgets that the actors cannot see or hear.  Mark plays an accordion; Igor pushes a baby carriage while walking on stilts and the whole troupe performs a choreographed dance,  spinning their umbrellas.  They re-create the visual- and sound-effects of a thunderstorm, using drums and bottles.  They hold a bird-watching session, mimed with binoculars.

Although deaf-blind people cannot see or hear, they all dream.  These memories and dreams form a recurring theme: Bat-Sheva dreams of having her hair done at premier hair salon (now taking appointments for 2016); Rafi dreams of being a magician, and Yuri yearns to get married under a chupah (wedding canopy).  Yuri’s wedding, complete with lively klezmer music, gives the show its joyous finale.

At the end of the performance, the standing-room-only audience is invited onstage to taste warm bread, fresh from the oven, dipped in olive oil or delicious pesto sauce.  They are also encouraged to heed the group’s name, Nalaga’at—Hebrew for “Please Do Touch”—by using sense of touch as another means of interacting with the performers.  As one character notes, “When you touch my hand, I feel less alone.”

Adina Tal, who emigrated to Israel from Switzerland at age 20, created this groundbreaking group in 2002.  She now serves as artistic director and CEO of the non-profit foundation.  The project uses an abandoned warehouse in the Israeli town of Jaffa.  Initially, it had no roof, no electricity and no water.

“When I began working with the performers, they had no enjoyment in life, and some talked about suicide”, Tal explains.  “Now they have something to live for.”

Tal noted that the performers offer viewers the gift of art and by extension, the gift of humanity.  By giving to society they become part of society.  They strive to make the audience aware that each of us has imperfections and through this realization, we achieve humility, she says.

The actors have grown accustomed to their celebrity.  They say they love shopping.  They complain about their salaries and enjoy having a “snow-day” off.  Fortunately, the show did go on, despite the snow on opening night.

Nalaga’at has not considered a “Not by Matzah Alone” version for the upcoming Passover holiday.  Passover is actually their vacation, since leavened bread is prohibited on Passover.  In addition, baking unleavened bread, which contains no yeast, would deprive the performance of its sensory appeal.  Nor do they plan a gluten-free version, although they thought about performing “Not by Rice Alone” in Korea.

Anyone who has the opportunity to experience Nalaga’at’s artistry, would surely agree with the The Memoirs of Victor Hugo that “The need of the immaterial is the most deeply rooted of all needs. One must have bread; but before bread, one must have the ideal.”