Confronting Their Origins: Brand New Jew and Vivian’s Music
The annual East to Edinburgh series at 59E59 Theaters is the closest thing to a theatrical grab-bag you’ll find. With about a dozen shows each running only a couple to a few times each, you never know what you’ll find. This year, two of the last shows to grace the stages, Brand New Jew, A DNA Comedy and Vivian’s Music, both by playwright Monica Bauer, exemplify that wonderful variety.
Brand New Jew is a humorous autobiographical exploration of identity…with musical accompaniment. Based on Bauer’s own experience of discovering her genetic heritage by way of one of those aggressively marketed spit-based DNA tests. In her experience, every adoptee dreams of discovering they’re related to a celebrity. Whether that’s true or not, her journey of discovery took an unexpected turn when it unearthed 71% Ashkenazy Jewish heritage. Quite a shock for a woman brought up in a very, very Polish Catholic neighborhood in Omaha — even more so considering she was raised by a father who was, despite his own atheism, a raging anti-Semite.
Bauer is not a polished performer, but she is a very good storyteller. The play’s structure is based around hitting milestones of sorts on her way to accepting herself as Jewish, with forays into character studies meant to help give a wider range of feeling to her story. There are some simple props and costume elements, and as a whole it has a bit of a shoestring vibe to it. It’s like going to visit a friend or neighbor and having them pull out a bunch of odds and ends accumulated over decades that somehow all ended up in the same drawer.
Monica Bauer (Photo by Scott Griessel)
But there are moments of surprising depth. In particular, her portrayal of a Southern science teacher touches on places deep and emotional. She begins excited by the possibility of being related to George Clooney, but her story quickly morphs, coming to an unexpectedly poignant realization. Bauer’s Klezmer Cowboy is an amusing curmudgeon, but no other character quite reaches the profundity of that early scene in the teacher’s lounge. Not in this play at least.
Where things get really interesting is in Vivian’s Music, 1969. Based on true events and adapted from the award-winning “My Occasion of Sin,” the story follows Vivian, a 14-year-old girl growing up black in Omaha in the 1960s. The other main character is Luigi Wells, the man who inherits the local jazz venue, The Dreamland Ballroom, after his mother passes away. Neither Vivian nor Luigi know of their relation to each other, but they live in close proximity for a short time in 1969.
Living on the other side of the tracks from where Bauer’s own Polish Catholic neighborhood would have been, Vivian lives in a small apartment with her mother and older sister. She spends her spare time at the Ballroom soaking in the music and adoring her 16-year-old boyfriend like only a teenager can. She is smart and funny and utterly delightful as played by Kailah S. King, who lights up the stage. Every moment King spends in the spotlight is a breath of fresh air. She’s open, honest and utterly captivating.
Russell Jordan is equally vivid as Wells, bringing warmth to the role as well as a wry sense of humor. His story is quite different from Vivian’s, and it’s interesting to watch him quickly code-switching when he speaks with a potential employer’s Polish wife or a local bank’s loan manager. It highlights how differently black people have to act in public spaces, and that element of black life is highlighted in a story told to Vivian by her mother about the events in Omaha in 1919.
Omaha was home to one of the largest black communities west of the Mississippi at that time. After a white woman accused a black man of accosting her, there was a white race riot in the city that ended with hundreds of black properties burnt to the ground. It is with that in mind that Vivian’s mother tells her to keep her eyes open and stay alert to what’s going on around her. Vivian thinks that’s no problem; she already feels like she goes through much of her life invisible, until one night when she becomes visible at precisely the wrong time.
Vivian’s Music is a stunning piece of work. The time has passed to see it as part of the East to Edinburgh series, but it’s certainly worth putting on your radar. Like the title character, it’s funny and smart and so, so heartbreaking.
Top photo: Kailah King and Russell Jordan in Vivian’s Music 1969; Photo by Michael Dekker
Brand New Jew, A DNA Comedy written and performed by Monica Bauer, directed by Maria Caprile
Produced by Good Works Productions
Vivian’s Music, 1969 written by Monica Bauer, directed by Glory Kadigan, with Kailah S King and Russell Jordan