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At 'The Prepared Table' Audiences Digest War Stories

Black Swan Arts honors Veterans Day with an ambitious performance that melds first-person narratives of military vets and refugees with music, dance, and food from across the globe.

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Until recently, Helen Stoltzfus had never had a conversation with a US military soldier or veteran. Like most Americans, her knowledge of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan was limited to news reports. "Most of us experienced war at a distance. ... We watched them on our TV and our computer," she said in an interview. Four years ago, Stoltzfus and Albert Greenberg, who are co-artistic directors of the Oakland-based performing arts nonprofit Black Swan Arts and Media, decided they wanted to find a more personal and meaningful way to understand the conflicts overseas.

On November 11, Black Swan will present The Prepared Table, an interactive, multimedia performance event that grew out of that desire for better understanding. Billed as an "alternative Veterans Day event," the one night production will feature first-person stories from US military veterans and Iraqi and Afghan refugees, a diverse mix of dance and musical performances, and an elaborate dinner feast. It's designed to give audience members — or "dinner guests," as the directors described them — an intimate, and at times emotional, experience.

Roughly ninety guests will crowd around tables at the Bellevue Club (525 Bellevue Ave., Oakland) for a four-course meal featuring foods from Iraq, Afghanistan, and a typical US military base. At the same time, Black Swan Arts will use screens throughout the space to project videotaped interviews with Iraqis, Afghans, and US veterans who have shared personal reflections on the impacts of war. And there will also be a series of live performances featuring roughly a dozen musicians and dancers, including a Palestinian-American vocalist who will sing a selection from the Quran; an Afghan-Filipina dancer and singer; a Latino beat-box artist; and two jazz horn players.

Black Swan Arts — formerly called ALICE Arts — partnered with a number of California immigration groups to connect with Bay Area refugees who have lived through war in Iraq and Afghanistan. The organization also collaborated with a Cal State East Bay journalism class to conduct interviews with local veterans. "Everybody's got an opinion about war and none get close to the people who have lived it," said Greenberg. "We live in our own bubble away from them, and it's not healthy. We're in an endless war, and it's not going away." The project — which Black Swan Arts eventually hopes to tour at museums and military bases — aims to shine a light on the atrocities of war while celebrating the Bay Area's role as a safe harbor for both refugees and veterans.

Stoltzfus said she hopes the feast can bring people together in a way that traditional performances cannot. "The food actually tells the story. ... They are literally ingesting the stories," she said. "We wanted that direct contact."

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