Israeli actress touches a nerve with domestic-violence show

Naomi Ackerman’s one-woman show about domestic violence was supposed to be a single, 20-minute gig.

Israel’s welfare ministry was staging a conference for social workers in Jerusalem five years ago and contacted the actress. Could she come up with something zippier than a standard lecture to liven up the meeting, they wanted to know?

She could and did. Now, some 680 performances later, her monologue, “Flowers Aren’t Enough” is still going strong.

“In my wildest dreams, I didn’t think it would turn into what it turned into,” said the 39-year-old Ackerman. She brings her show to the Bay Area on Thursday, Feb. 26, in a benefit performance for Shalom Bayit, an Oakland-based domestic violence program for Jewish women.

Ackerman has been blown away by the continuing grip that her composite character named Michal, a young woman in an abusive marriage, holds on audiences.

The American-born Israeli has taken the show to schools, jails and community centers and performed before women’s groups and religious organizations in Israel, India, and the United States. And after every performance, at least one woman lets her know that the show tells her personal story.

“They’ll come up and hug me and whisper, ‘That was me,'” said Ackerman, who has expanded her original 20-minute monologue to a full hour followed by a discussion session with audience members.

Ackerman, who is married and the mother of a 3-month-old girl, is not herself the victim of domestic abuse.

“It’s become a mission,” said Ackerman, who spent part of her childhood in Los Angeles before her family made aliyah to Israel when she was 9. Though she grew up in a “wonderful home” and is in a happy marriage, “I realized how easily it could have happened to me.”

The heart of her performance is based on original stories she heard at a Jerusalem shelter for battered women that she visited after being asked to create the theatrical piece for the conference.

But her monologue is so believable that audiences kept asking, “Is this your personal story?” during the discussion session that she leads following each show.

“It was hard to get discussion going,” recalled Ackerman.

She remedied the perception problems by donning a wig for her monologue and removing it for the discussion afterward. Now, she has incorporated many of the stories she’s heard from audience members into her performance.

“The first 50 times, I’d say it was a work in progress,” she said. After that, “it kind of grew and grew.”

Ackerman first visited the women’s center in Jerusalem to perform a clown act for children before introducing herself to their mothers. “I didn’t want to go and say, ‘I’m an actress’ and start interviewing them. I felt I wanted to find a way to really get to them and not necessarily interview them.”

After her clown performance, she hung out at the shelter and eventually had dinner with a group of women. The stories she heard were woven into the monologue.

“The show tells about a very average, upper-middle-class young woman” who gets caught in a “snowball that gets bigger and bigger.” Verbal abuse turns to physical attacks.

“One of the strengths is you see the inner workings of this character,” said Ackerman. “It kind of escalates. She’s in love with this guy. She sees the red lights but chooses to ignore them.”

The reference to flowers in the show’s title refers to the bouquets her husband continually brings her as peace offerings. Michal eventually opens a flower shop.

From her original interviews and subsequent conversations, Ackerman is convinced many battered women feel caught in “a vicious cycle.” Society judges victims of abuse if they do leave their attacker and judges them if they don’t, she said.

Through her monologue, Ackerman hopes to illustrate that victims of abuse aren’t alone and that “love shouldn’t hurt.”

The connection frequently ignited between Ackerman and her audiences led to e-mails, letters and late-night phone calls from listeners. “I wanted to do what I could to help them,” said Ackerman. She was eventually persuaded by her husband and stage manager, Raphael Harrington, that “you can’t become a hot line” and now refers women in need to professional programs and shelters.

Despite the grim subject matter of her monologue, Ackerman tries to lighten up the question-and-answer session.

“I make sure to end with a powerful feeling,” said Ackerman. “I’m not here to scare you. I’m here to warn you.”

Naomi Ackerman will present her one-woman show, “Flowers Aren’t Enough,” at 7 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 26, at Congregation Emanu-El, 2 Lake St, S.F. District Attorney Kamala Harris and Rabbi Sydney Mintz will deliver opening remarks. Tickets: $18 to $54 benefiting Shalom Bayit. (510) 451-8874.

She also will appear at a meet-the-actress luncheon at noon Sunday, Feb. 29, at Ristorante Raphael, 2132 Center St., Berkeley. Tickets: $50. Information: (510) 451-8874.