Ari'el Stachel rehearses his one-man show. (Photo/Muriel Steinke)
Ari'el Stachel rehearses his one-man show. (Photo/Muriel Steinke)

Tony winner Ari’el Stachel comes home to Berkeley to premiere deeply personal one-man show

When Berkeley-born actor Ari’el Stachel won a Tony Award in 2018 for his Broadway debut in “The Band’s Visit,” he gave an emotional acceptance speech.

“I want any kid who is watching to know that your biggest obstacle may turn into your purpose,” he said.

With the opening later this month of “Out of Character” at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, Stachel is living by example. He called the production of his one-man show, which he’s been working on since college, his “dream.” And he’s only 31.

Given his age and early success, one could believe it all came easily. But this show is meant to dispel that notion. It is a reckoning with both his Arab and Jewish identities and with the crippling anxiety he experienced as a child.

“This has been such a labor of love,” he said in an interview. “My dream is to bring it to New York, and then I want to go to Jewish communities all over the country and even the world. I want to be very aggressive about telling this story. This is the thing that I am able to offer as an artist, both to others and to myself.”

And while he wants to be “aggressive” in telling the story, he held back to some degree for this article, saying he wants much of the show to remain a surprise.

He did say that the work is deeply Jewish, in that it asks a lot of questions. “The path I took by sitting and writing a solo play is not the sexiest thing to do as an actor,” he said. “There are other things you can do to achieve more instant gratification or give you more status. I feel I went on this path to honor the Jewish tradition in some way.”

“Out of Character” opens June 28 after a few nights of previews and is scheduled to play through July 30. There will be talkbacks with Stachel after the performances on July 7, 13 and 18.

Following the July 12 show, Stachel will be in conversation with Rabbi Kendell Pinkney, who like Stachel is a New York-based artist and Jew of color. The event is co-sponsored by Jewish culture nonprofit Reboot and J.

‘Acting was survival’

As a boy Stachel was much more interested in excelling in basketball than the performing arts. But on some level, he said, he’s been acting for nearly all of his life. He often felt he didn’t belong — in Jewish spaces, especially.

“Acting was survival,” he said. “Code switching or playing a character can really get you a lot of mileage socially. It immediately gave me a sense of belonging and purpose and identity. The friendship and the power I felt became a sense of protection but it grew into the biggest lie.”

His mother, Laura Stachel of Berkeley, is a white Ashkenazi Jew and co-founder with his stepfather, Hal Aronson, of We Care Solar. Their nonprofit distributes solar devices to developing countries to provide consistent lighting during childbirth.

His father, Aharon Yeshayahu, is an Israeli of Yemeni descent. Now living in Orinda, he works in real estate. Stachel’s parents met while Israeli folk dancing in San Francisco. After having two children together, they divorced when Ari’el was a baby. (His older sister, Atalya Yeshayahu, is a dance educator who lives in Oakland. He also has a younger half-sister, Rachel Aronson.)

Stachel's Yemenite-Israeli relatives
Stachel’s Yemeni grandparents with some of their children.

Laura Stachel believes her son inherited her intensity and ambition. But physically, he more resembles his father. And while he wasn’t the only brown-skinned kid at Tehiyah Day School, which he attended for first through fifth grades, he was always the only one in his class.

“I felt stuck in a world that did not see me as Jewish,” he said. Had he been raised in Israel, Stachel believes his mixed identity would not have been such an issue, as there are so many more like him.

“In this country, if you’re brown, the association is not Jewish,” he said. Despite the multicultural environment of Berkeley, he knew no kids of Arab descent, saying, “There were no kids I identified with growing up.”

In addition, Stachel was diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder when he was a child. He remembers going on medication at 5 or 6 and undergoing cognitive behavioral therapy. One way the disorder affected him was that he noticed mannerisms that other kids did not, and he was a master of impressions. “As a kid who was very in tune with language and how others spoke, I could completely reinvent myself,” he said.

His mother said she was so focused on dealing with her son’s OCD that she didn’t realize how conflicted he was over his identity.  “I just didn’t just get it,” she said. “There was a lot about his identity conflict that had him hiding parts of himself from us.”

Stachel said the fact that he had divorced parents gave him a certain amount of freedom, in that he was going back and forth between their homes and could choose to bring just one parent to school functions. “I used my mom’s whiteness as a way to create a myth about what my dad or what I might be,” he said.

Stachel with his parents at the 2018 Tony Awards (Photo/Instagram-@arielstachel)
With his parents at the 2018 Tony Awards. (Photo/Instagram-@arielstachel)

When he changed schools, he decided to hide who he truly was and pretend he was Black. He also dropped the last name Yeshayahu and started going by Ari Stachel. (He later decided to spell his name Ari’el, to help non-Hebrew speakers pronounce it correctly.)

“Passing for mixed race or Black made me feel free and safe,” he said, in that it gave him a social group to hang out with. “But however you find a solution that works, at first you think how awesome it is that you’ve alleviated this discomfort. You don’t think about the repercussions.”

He transferred after his freshman year from Berkeley High to the Oakland School for the Arts, and it was there that he fell in love with musical theater.

While his ability to do impressions was perhaps a clue to his future career, his mom said the fact he could sing came as a shock. “He’s just been this surprise phenomenon, and has the most diligent work ethic,” she said. “Of course, he had the raw talent, but the amount he can work is beyond anyone I know, and that’s part of what’s made him very successful.”

Stachel attended New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts and entered the theater world, where he had to confront how his appearance — and perceptions about how he looked — affected  which auditions he was sent out for.

“I went to college thinking that looking ethnically ambiguous was a good thing, but the cultural tides were shifting,” he said. “I quickly learned I should be playing roles that are specific to my own heritage. That felt very suffocating, as there wasn’t a Middle Eastern canon of musical theater.”

A big break

For three years after he graduated from NYU, roles were hard to come by. He wondered if he had a future in theater. Then came a role in the show that would change everything for him.

“The Band’s Visit,” which opened on Broadway in 2017, is based on an Israeli film of the same name. It’s about an Egyptian orchestra that gets stranded in small-town Israel for a night, and explores the human-to-human interactions between the band members and the townspeople who extend their hospitality. It was a watershed show for Broadway in that it required several Arab actors, meaning just about every actor of Arab descent tried out for it, Stachel said. Relatively unknown, he had to audition for the role of Haled, a romantic trumpet player, no fewer than seven times.

His co-stars included the Lebanese-American actor Tony Shalhoub (“The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” “Monk”) and Iraqi Israeli actor Sasson Gabay ( “Shtisel,” “Karaoke”).

For a Broadway debut, Stachel couldn’t have hit a larger jackpot. The show was nominated for 11 Tony Awards and won 10. In addition to winning his Tony for featured actor in a musical, he also earned a Grammy for his participation in the cast album.

Stachel backstage at "The Band's Visit" with Sasson Gabay, July 2018 (Photo/Instagram-@arielstachel)
Backstage at “The Band’s Visit” with Sasson Gabay, July 2018. (Photo/Instagram-@arielstachel)

In a review of “The Band’s Visit,” Ben Brantley of the New York Times wrote that Stachel’s “smooth jazz vocals dazzle,” while David Rooney of the Hollywood Reporter wrote: “Stachel is an absolute charmer, uncovering unexpected depths in smooth-talking Haled.”

At the Tony Awards, with his proud parents looking on, he made a teary, memorable speech, where he said, “I have avoided so many events with them, because for so many years of my life, I pretended that I was not a Middle Eastern person. After 9/11, it was very, very difficult for me.” (He was 10 when the attacks happened in 2001 and experienced some of the anti-Arab sentiment that followed.)

He ended his speech with that line about turning your greatest obstacle into your purpose.

While the play’s effect on Stachel’s career is undeniable, it affected him in personal ways, too. One was being introduced to Gabay. “Every second outside of that show, we were together,” Stachel said. “It was like I was effortlessly understood by him. He got all the parts of me.”

Their friendship, he said, “is one of the deepest friendships I’ve had.”

Speaking by phone from New York, Gabay said that when he first met Stachel in 2017, “he was very unsettled with himself, and was always asking questions, both artistically and personally.”

Gabay saw an early performance of what would ultimately become “Out of Character” that Stachel put on for some of his friends in a New York apartment. Gabay said he witnessed “the philosophy, the enthusiasm, and the rage. I felt the importance of what this story means to him and also his need to tell the story. It really says something about him if he’s questioning himself so thoroughly and sharply at such a young age.”

He added, “Within the years that he’s been working on this material, I see that he’s much more centered and more at peace within himself. I see more acceptance and confidence.”

Scraping the bone

After his Tony win, Stachel thought he had arrived. He was now on the radar of theater directors and producers. With newfound confidence, he pitched them a monologue from a one-man show he wrote, mostly at a Yemeni coffee shop in Brooklyn, about reconciling his Arab-Jewish identity. He staged a reading for his manager and producers of “The Band’s Visit.” He was disappointed when they didn’t want to stage it right away. He needed to find the right director, they told him.

He cold-called Tony Taccone, Berkeley Rep’s longtime artistic director and someone known in the industry as a nurturer of new talent. Taccone directed “bridge & tunnel,” a one-woman show that Stachel saw at age 12 that left an impression on him. Stachel hoped he might direct his work-in-progress show, too. While Taccone offered two pages of notes after reading the script, he made no promises other than that he would read another draft. Many months later they met again, and Taccone gave him more notes.

In 2021, Stachel became an artist in Berkeley Rep’s Ground Floor residency. When the Covid pandemic meant no work for a time, he lived in Berkeley with his mother and stepfather and worked with Taccone on what became “Out of Character” on Taccone’s porch.

Stachel with director Tony Taccone during rehearsal. (Photo/Muriel Steinke)
With director Tony Taccone during rehearsal. (Photo/Muriel Steinke)

The show changed considerably due to input from Taccone, who retired from Berkeley Rep in 2019 but agreed to come back to direct this show. For example, the focus shifted to include Stachel’s struggle with anxiety. (A few events in the play are exaggerated or invented for effect.)

It’s also a comedy.

“It’s one thing to sit and talk with a therapist, another to turn it into entertainment,” Stachel said. “At the end of the day, the show is a comedy that’s meant for people to be entertained, not a therapy session. That is what took so long, because I first had to be willing to talk about it.”

Pinkney, Stachel’s friend and a rabbinical educator at Reboot, hasn’t seen the full show yet. But he knows about its contents from the deep conversations he’s had with Stachel over the years.

“I’m blown away by how vulnerable and unsparing he is with himself,” Pinkney said. “I couldn’t help but feel protective when he told me everything he was going to touch on. But there’s a saying that if you’re going to be an artist, you have to scrape the bone, you have to go that deep.”

Stachel, who is dating actor KiKi Layne (they met on the set of the 2022 film “Don’t Worry Darling”), said he is still more comfortable in a Yemeni coffee shop than in most synagogues. Nevertheless, he believes “Out of Character” is a crucial step in his Jewish journey, a journey that is ongoing.

“I’m continuing to find my Jewish identity, and each year, it becomes more and more important to me,” he said. “In spite of all the trying to run away I did, I’ve internalized it in a way that’s very important to me.”

“Out of Character”

June 28–July 30 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, Peet’s Theatre, 2025 Addison St. Previews June 23, 24, 25, 27. $39-$119.

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."