Train whistle, rattling sounds of closing doors and the loud chugging of the wheels. These are the sounds that open up Rock and Roll Refugee, a play staged by Royal Family Productions and adapted by Chris Henry from the autobiographical book by Genya Ravan, an American rock singer and producer. Black and white photo collages flash on the back wall, instantly dropping us into the post-war Europe of 1940s and Genya’s earliest memories. She remembers the train as a cattle car, so packed that her father (Chris Thorn) is hanging off it, holding on for dear life, with little Geynusha (Dee Roscioli) on his back. “I can’t hold on anymore,” he shouts to his wife (Charlotte Cohen). “I can’t breathe,” Geynusha wails. “If she bumps into me again I will throw her down into that river,” yells a passenger. When Geynusha looks down below, she sees water splashing. When the train abruptly stops, they transfer to an ocean liner.
Holocaust survivors that lived through the Nazi’s occupation of Poland, Geynusha’s family is on their way to New York. After their journey, America truly sounds like the Promised Land. Things start to change on Ellis Island, as Geynusha and her sister change their names to something that sounds “more American.” Geynusha becomes Goldie. Her sister (Kristin Nemecek) becomes Helen. Soon the family settles in New York eager to embrace the American dream. Only it turns out to be far from the paradise they expected. While parents struggle to make a living, the girls struggle with their new identities or the lack thereof.
Dee Roscioli and Michael Liscio
Goldie wants to listen to the songs on the radio, but her mother yells at her to “turn off the noisey-maker.” She wants to go outside, but she isn’t allowed. “My mother never let me play with anyone who wasn’t Jewish,” Genya recalls. “I was friendless, I was lonely.” The ghosts of past horrors still haunt the family. Talking about Genya’s two older brothers who were shot in front of their parents’ eyes, is taboo. “We don’t talk about it,” her father says. Her mother obsessively cleans, never letting go of the ubiquitous mop, as if trying to clean away the past. And while she’s busy scrubbing off the painful memories, little seven-year-old Goldie is acquiring her own: a child-molesting neighbor has taken a liking to her.
Goldie grows older and things grow worse as she tries to understand her own identify. Not surprisingly, her character takes three to portray: the little girl Geynusha who sings (Imogen Williams), Goldie who wants to sing, and the grown-up Genya (Katrina Rose Diderksen) who will sing—if her day will ever come. “Geynusha,” pleads her father, “Stay a good girl for me. Marry nice Jewish boy, keep Shabbos.” But Goldie couldn’t be farther from that ideal. She hangs out in bars, poses topless for pictures, and helps her sister elope. She does fulfill one of her parents’ wishes—at 16, she marries a nice Jewish boy—to get away from under their thumb. Alas, the honeymoon doesn’t last, in fact it doesn’t even start! The newlyweds turn out to be sexually incompatible, and Goldie runs away.
Chris Thorn and Charlotte Cohn
The set design reflects the rundown atmosphere of the Lower East side and the gap between one’s aspiration and what life actually is. While the life drama happens on the stage, the band and the lead singer, representing the older, successful Genya, are positioned up above, as if depicting the world of one’s dreams. There’s up and down, an in between there’s a staircase—the proverbial fire escape ladder which had raised generations of Big Apple kids. It is on that black staircase that hordes of New York youngsters hid from their families, did homework, met friends, ate, slept, fell in love and broke up. Some never dared to climb those life ladders. Some tried and fell off. Others succeeded. When her time finally comes, Genya too walks up that staircase to join the band and sing in public for the first time. And then all three different Genyas will finally make a whole.
Photos By Russ Rowland:
Opening: Dee Roscioli and the ensemble
Rock and Roll Refugee
Royal Family Arts Center
145 West 46th Street, 3rd floor
Through February 14, 2016
Thursday – Saturday at 5:30 p.m.
Sunday at 6:30 p.m.