Knowing this, the artists behind Same Difference (many of whom were involved in a similar earlier project entitled Sept. 11: In Our Own Words) interviewed over 100 New York City residents, each representing -- to one degree or another -- one of the three faiths. Thoughts and stories from these interviews have been woven together to simulate a kind of onstage dialogue. Accompanied by live musicians and singers, the piece is rounded out by a handful of songs, dances, and photo/video footage.
Although Same Difference could be counted as another installment in the increasingly popular genre of "documentary theater," it is not nearly as slick as some of its forebears, such as The Laramie Project or The Exonerated. Performed at the Church of St. Paul & St. Andrew, where it was first conceived, Same Difference is more reminiscent of a lively church theatrical, with all of the good intentions and mixed results that such an enterprise usually entails.
Each of the dozen or so principle actors in the piece takes on several personae, but there is little attention to detail as far as the "characters" are concerned; director Sarah Brockus's aim seems to be to focus on the words themselves rather than the distinct personalities of the individuals interviewed. Some of the actors succeed better than others in making particular characters stand out -- e.g., a devout young Muslim woman and an interfaith couple. Unfortunately it's difficult to single out the actors by name since they are credited only as "Man 1," "Woman 2," etc.
For the bulk of the play, the presentation style is very relaxed as the characters share their feelings, anecdotes, and ideas on such topics as religion and food, interfaith relationships, and tradition. Though Brockus's direction is a little clumsy at times and some of the performers are unpolished, this freewheeling discussion format is a refreshing and entertaining approach. The music and dance elements of the piece are not as seamlessly integrated as one might hope, but it is nice to see artistic responses to these subjects. Particularly noteworthy are "Have a Reason, Have a Faith," a song by Nenad Bach; and "Unseen," a beautiful veil dance performed by Kristi Little.
Eventually, and inevitably, the focus of the piece turns to September 11 and Jewish-Muslim relations, at which point the show's lightheartedness disappears. Early in the proceedings, many of the interviewees appear comfortable, even enthusiastic, about living in an interfaith community; in the face of difficult questions concerning Israel and Palestine, however, that easygoing tolerance fades away and people start falling into two groups, each one accusing the other. (This divide is also illustrated through Jill Jaffe's dance piece "The Battle.") The most provocative aspect of Same Difference is that it dares you to agree wholly with any of the opinions it presents. At one moment, a pro-Israel man makes a very good point -- and then a Palestinian woman offers a heartfelt rebuttal. The challenge is to open your mind and understand both sides.
Near the end of the piece, one man admits that interfaith communication may have finally broken down. After hearing the barrage of insults, accusations, and excuses that these seemingly tolerant people begin hurling at each other, it's tempting to agree. But, obviously, the very existence of this piece -- which was created with the support of the United Methodist Committee on Relief, Congregation B'nai Jeshurun, and the American Sufi Muslim Association, among other organizations -- proves that the faithful of New York City are still aching to reach out to one another. If Same Difference lacks a certain theatrical eloquence, it is nonetheless a meaningful and enlightening expression of that desire.