Photo: Ari Roth
Despite having had a long, busy day at the US Supreme Court this past Monday, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg made a point of attending a special performance of “Stars of David: Story to Song” in Washington that evening. The performance of the musical review celebrating the lives of Jewish public figures — including Ginsburg herself — was a benefit for Theater J, a program of the Washington DC Jewish Community Center.
To the delight of the cast, the 81-year-old Justice visited them backstage after the performance to express her appreciation. “She was very expressive,” actor and singer Aaron Serotsky, who was in the original “Stars of David” off-Broadway run in New York last fall, shared with the Forward the next day. Ginsburg reportedly told him and the others that she was moved to laughter and tears as she watched the show, which is based on the best-selling book by Abigail Pogrebin and features original music by Broadway’s finest composers and lyricists.
According to Serotsky, the cast was made aware just an hour before curtain time that the Justice, who had been invited to the benefit performance by Theater J artistic director Ari Roth, was actually going to show up. “We knew she was there when a female security guard showed up backstage,” Serotsky recalled.
A few months ago, thanks in part to The Forward, I became aware of a controversy at Theater J. An organization housed within the Washington DC Jewish Community Center (DCJCC), the theater had announced its 2013-2014 season, which was to include a production of “The Admission” by Israeli playwright Motti Lerner.
Key to this play are contrasting and layered Israeli and Palestinian narratives about what happened in an Arab village during the 1948 war for Israeli independence. Arguing that by staging this play Theater J, the DCJCC, and the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington were “promoting a discredited and defamatory lie against Israel,” a committee called Citizens Opposed to Propaganda Masquerading as Art (COPMA) implemented an energetic and public campaign against it.
I confess that the merest hint of anti-Israel sentiment can set me on edge, even (perhaps especially) when that sentiment appears to come from my coreligionists. In this instance, my immediate reaction was to sympathize with COPMA’s argument that Federation (or other Jewish community-sourced) funds should not go to disparaging, demonizing, or delegitimizing the Jewish state. But without having read or seen “The Admission” for myself, I couldn’t be certain that the play was guilty as COPMA had charged it.
Woody Guthrie sang of America’s “redwood forests” and “gulf stream waters.” The traveling troubadour and American folk poet electrified a nation with his paeans to America’s indomitable spirit and beauty.
Oklahoma-born and Texas-raised, he also ignited mighty debates with songs and writings that took on the establishment and sought to elevate the working masses. His guitar bore the message: “This machine kills fascists.” And he even has a Jewish connection, that lives on in some of his music and his ideals.
His baldly patriotic hymn to his country, “This Land Is Your Land,” features a stanza that states: “In the shadow of the steeple I saw my people, / By the relief office I seen my people; / As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking / Is this land made for you and me?”
Guthrie’s songs, spirit and life have been brought to the stage in a 90-minute musical biography written and performed by actor and musician David Lutken. His “Woody Sez,” developed with Nick Corley, tells the singer/songwriter’s story in song.
“Growing up in Texas I learned a lot of folk songs that had to do with the West and with America,” Lutken said. “Woody Guthrie was right in there. I didn’t know at the time when I was singing his ‘Take Me Riding in the Car Car’ when I was 5 that that was job training.” The show premiered at the Edinburgh Fringe festival in 2007 and has since toured the U.S. and beyond. It returns to Washington, D.C.’s Theater J through December 14 and then moves to Milwaukee Repertory Theater in January.
Playwright Ari Roth stumbles sometimes when discussing the characters in “Andy and the Shadows,” his family drama that opens this week at Washington, D.C.’s Theater J. In fact, when Roth discusses Nate, the patriarch in the work, he slips, saying, “my father.” It’s undestandable, for Roth, long-time artistic director of Washington D.C. JCC-based theater, has fused elements of his own family history with fantasy, fact and fiction, in crafting his most personal work to date.
In the play, protagonist and sometime narrator Andy Glickstein is a filmmaker and the son of Holocaust refugees who is about to become engaged. His return home ignites a tangle of memories about his parents’ escapes from Hitler’s Europe that intrude on a busy American life on Chicago’s South Side. Is Roth, a Chicago native, son of Holocaust refugees? Yes. Then where does Roth’s story end and Andy’s begin? “I would move to do as much separating as possible,” Roth insisted, “but I think that would be a fruitless task at the same time. Any experienced reader of fiction or watcher of plays knows that there are critical differences, but at the same time there are also similarities to the author’s life and his creation. You’re borrowing, you’re referencing history … and then you’re making stuff up.”
Roth’s mother, clinical psychiatrist Chaya Roth, was a hidden child, like Raya in the play. In her 2008 memoir, “The Fate of Holocaust Memories,” she recalls her experiences being disguised as a Catholic orphan while living in a Rome convent, where, against her mother’s wishes, she took communion with the other children. His father, Walter, an attorney, was born in Germany and wrote about his pre-war childhood and about his return trips five decades later in his 2013 memoir, “Departure and Return: Trips to and Memories from Roth, Germany.”
Kevyn Morrow and Johnny Ramey in Centerstage’s production of The Whipping Man. Photo by Richard Anderson.
“The Whipping Man,” a taut Civil War drama about a wounded Jewish confederate soldier and his encounter with the Jewish slaves owned by his father, has been on a nationwide roll since its world premiere in 2006. With more than a dozen productions from New York to Tampa Bay, San Diego to Philadelphia, Cincinnati to Fort Worth, the three-character play by newcomer Matthew Lopez seems to have a leg up, literally. This month “The Whipping Man” is running both at Baltimore’s Centerstage through May 13, and in Washington, D.C., at Theater J, from April 18 to May 20.
This unusual confluence has allowed the two companies to share dramaturgical resources, and to engage in a bit of friendly competition. Centerstage’s new artistic director Kwame Kwei-Armah jokingly opined that because of its proximity, Theater J “will be able to steal the good bits of mine and make theirs better.” Kidding aside, both productions touch a chord, drawing back the curtain on the little-known and little-talked about world of southern Jewry during the Civil War, including confederate soldiers and, reputedly, slaves who practiced Judaism. The play, opening in the waning days of battle, also has a gory coup de theatre to keep audiences riveted.
Elizabeth Rich as Rosalind Franklin in ‘Photograph 51.’ Photo by Stan Barouh.
Watching the current production at Washington D.C.’s Theater J of Anna Ziegler’s “Photograph 51,” which tells the tragic tale of Jewish scientist and almost Nobel laureate Rosalind Franklin (1920-1958), I was reminded of Walt Whitman’s poem “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” (1900).
Whitman’s narrator, who finds himself “tired” and “sick” of all the proofs and figures in the academic astronomy lecture he is attending, decides to glide out of the room and look up in rapture at the “perfect silence of the stars.”
Just as Whitman’s narrator chooses life over science (as if it is the case that never the twain shall meet), “Photograph 51’s” distinguished cast, directed by Daniella Topol, are forced into a Nietzschean choice between the Dionysian and the Apollonian — between fun and math.
In the first of a two-part series, Lisa Traiger traces the growth of Israeli folk dancing from one dance — “Hora Agadati” in 1924 — to 4,678 in 2005.
Jordana Horn surveys the career of the remarkable Moroccan-Israel actress Ronit Elkabetz, who was recently honored by the New York Sephardic Jewish Film Festival.
Philologos is, as we all suspected, a nerd.
Jay Michaelson argues that current political arguments are not “l’shem shamayim.”
Howard Shapiro explores San Francisco Symphony artistic director Michael Tilson Thomas’s tribute to his late grandparents, Yiddish theater stars Boris and Bessie Thomashefsky.
Crossposted From Under the Fig Tree
There aren’t too many novels that can lay claim to a second, much less a third, lease on life as both a film and a play, especially when the subject at hand has to do with religion and faith. But “The Chosen,” Chaim Potok’s novel of Orthodox Jewish life in Brooklyn during the waning years of the 1940s, has, of late, scored a home run.
These days, it takes the form of a critically acclaimed play which, thanks to a creative partnership between Theater J and Arena Stage, can be seen at the latter’s 800-seat Fichandler Theatre downtown.
Eric A. Goldman shares his discovery of the classic Canadian film “Lies My Father Told Me.”
Katherine Preston looks at the similarities between “The King’s Speech” and “Going With the Flow,” a short documentary about speech therapy.
Debra Nussbam Cohen praises the accomplishments of Jewish feminist Judith Plaskow.
Philologos gets out his trunk.
It is sadly fitting that in a play about language’s inability to explain political and religious differences, set design and subtitles conspired to thwart the actors.
But such was the case at the opening of the Tel Aviv-based Cameri Theatre’s production at Theater J in Washington, D.C. of Return to Haifa, which runs until January 30 as part of the theater’s Voices From a Changing Middle East festival. The play explores a tug-of-war between Palestinian parents Sa’id (Suheil Haddad) and Saffiyeh (Raida Adon), and Miriam (Rozina Kambos), the Jewish woman who adopted their abandoned son Dov/Khaldun (Nisim Zohar).
In this, the second annual Forward Fives selection, we celebrate the year’s cultural output with a series of deliberately eclectic choices in film, music, theater, exhibitions and books. Here we present five of the most important Jewish performances of 2010. Feel free to argue with and add to our selections in the comments.
Hapless Hooligan in ‘Still Moving’
What happens when you put a prominent modern dance company in a room with one of the great innovators of the graphic novel? The answer in this case was “Hapless Hooligan,” a collaboration between Pilobolus Dance Theater and Art Spiegelman, creator of the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Maus” series. Premiering this past July at the Joyce Theater, the vaudeville-esque piece included an animated sequence based on Spiegelman’s drawings, which was projected onto a backdrop for the dancers to interact with. Though somewhat unorthodox, “Hapless Hooligan” was a creative gamble that paid off.
Read the Forward’s review of ‘Hapless Hooligan in Still Moving’ here.
Although they aren’t nearly as dysfunctional as the narrator and the old man with the “vulture eye” in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” or Allie and Hedy in “Single White Female,” Oscar Madison and Felix Ungar make up a lousy pair of roommates in Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple.
But however rave the reviews are of Theater J’s version of the play — and some have seriously gushed — they all, like the note from Theater J Artistic Director Ari Roth in the playbill, avoid altogether the question of “The Odd Couple”’s Jewishness (or lack thereof).
“We don’t get too much straight male-bonding on our stages these days,” Roth writes. “Not with this degree of hilarity. So welcome back to Friday Night Poker and Neil Simon’s Original Men’s Club.” The closest Roth gets to a Jewish take on the play is a reference to restoring faith, but he means the play’s ability to restore faith in “our collective imperfectability,” adding that we are all “wonderful snobs and persnickety control freaks.”
“Rehabilitated? It’s just a bullshit word,” Ellis Boyd ‘Red’ Redding (Morgan Freeman) notoriously tells the parole board in “The Shawshank Redemption.” “So you go on and stamp your form, sonny, and stop wasting my time. Because to tell you the truth, I don’t give a shit.”
Three decades into her incarceration as an accessory to the murder of a police officer, Alison Moulten, the heroine (or anti-heroine) of Willy Holtzman’s “Something You Did,” which opened this week at Theater J in Washington, D.C., is as cynical as Red is about the prospect of freedom. But whereas Red mocks the parole board, Moulten decides to contact the victim’s daughter (Aakhu Freeman) and tries to enlist her help, as well as that of a former colleague-lover turned political nemesis.
Crossposted From Under The Fig Tree
For centuries, taking to the road has been the stuff of grand adventure and equally grand literature. From Benjamin of Tudela’s 12th century “Book of Travels” to Jack Kerouac’s 1957 “On the Road,” travel has been bound up with freedom and an enhanced sense of self.
But what if travel turned out to be more a matter of constraint, of diminished expectations, than of affirmation?
Consider the experience of kosher-keeping Jews in America of the early 1900s, at a time when kosher food was hard to come by. For them, traveling throughout the United States was surely no picnic.