Woman Around Town’s Editor Charlene Giannetti and writers for the website talk with the women and men making news in New York, Washington, D.C., and other cities around the world. Thanks to Ian Herman for his wonderful piano introduction.
In Sholem Asch’s 1907 play, The God of Vengeance (Got fun nekome), a lesbian virgin and a prostitute make love in the rain. Despite accompanying scandal, Europe applauds. In 1923, when, after several U.S. productions, a translated version reaches Broadway, its cast is arrested, then convicted on obscenity charges. The now established Asch, living and working on Staten Island, doesn’t show up to defend the company. Much happened between.
Stage Manager Lemmel (a splendidly empathetic Richard Topol) introduces his thespians and musicians – ingénues, middle aged actors, and those who play the elderly. Each stands. Ashes pour from their sleeves. (Inspired) “We have a story about a play that changed my life…”
We’re all brothers and sing happy songs/We stick together like nobody else does…the company sings in Yiddish.
It’s 1906 Warsaw. Polish/Jewish author Sholem Asch, 1880-1957 (the entirely credible Max Gordon Moore) is excited about reading his play at the writers’ salon of cultural figurehead Y.L. Peretz (Tom Nellis, also in a roster of vibrantly realized roles). Peretz spearheads a renaissance of Yiddish writing, Asch’s mother tongue. The piece is condemned by those gathered for showing Jewish people in poor light. Only a tailor named Lemmel, invited by his cousin, is enthusiastic. “A minion,” Asch comments darkly in response, “is ten Jews in a circle accusing each other of Antisemitism.”
The God of Vengeance features a hypocritically pious, Jewish brothel owner who commissions an expensive Torah scroll intending to marry his daughter off to a yeshiva student to secure respectability. When she falls in love with a prostitute, her furious father throws down the Torah and banishes the girl and her mother to earn their keep “on your backs.”
Richard Topol and Adina Verson
In search of creative freedom, Shalom and his wife Mathilde (Adina Verson) move to Berlin as initially depicted here by a Weimar Cabaret act. There the piece is produced in a German version by Max Reinhardt with Rudolph Shildkraut (Nellis) in the lead. “I assume I will be the butch and you the feminine, but how do I play a Jew?” the more experienced actress (Katrina Lenk) reflects. (The other is played by Verson.) We watch as these two discover one another. Lemmel shows up (it’s not clear how) and becomes the production’s stage manager, a position he’ll hold for the rest of his life.
The show tours outside of Poland. We see excerpts with the use of actors freezing while “a blink in time” appears on the translation screen – a method to fast forward. The couple emigrates to New York. Asch pulls strings to insure Lemmel joins them. Peyos (long, hanging sidelocks) are dispensed with. “Even Jews looks like Goys in America,” they sing and dance. Many take English names and endeavor to learn the language. Asch continues to write in Yiddish.
Adina Verson and Katrina Lenk; Katrina Lenk and Adina Verson
There are two successful downtown runs. Audiences appreciate the playwright’s ability to bring Jewish themes to secular subjects. A translation that takes liberties to which Lemmel and the cast object, but Asch ignores “why should I bother with a play I wrote when I was in short pants” facilitates a debut at Broadway’s Apollo Theater. (The nature of these makes this plausible.) Arrests follow. Though notable artists volunteer to testify in defense (Eugene O’Neill is shown), the court denies them opportunity.
Angry and disillusioned, Lemmel goes back to Warsaw where he’s incarcerated in the ghetto (and eventually taken to a camp). The “company” add Jewish stars to their threadbare coats and perform one makeshift act of the play each week. This is wrenching. In the meantime, Asch and his wife…
Richard Topol, Katrina Verson, Katrina Lenk, Tom Nellis, Stephen Ratazzi, and Mimi Lieber
Paula Vogel and Rebecca Teichman’s deft, provocative production has moved, much intact, from The Vineyard Theatre to The Cort. I hope its new location brings the worthy piece extended audience. I’m Jewish, my companion tonight is not; impact seems equally experienced. Subjects like censorship, religious conservatism, cultural convention, assimilation, and bigotry – here, both Antisemitism and homophobia are universally relevant.
Though it’s passionate, Indecent is not a polemic. The eloquent book is peppered with songs and dances, both traditionally Yiddish (translations appear when necessary, on a screen) and popular English WWII numbers. These can lighten proceedings or darken them with sharp juxtaposition to events. Failings and accomplishment are depicted through specific human characters, not ideas. Indecent (an ambiguous title) is both immensely moving and entertaining.
Manke (the prostitute)… Because I don’t want to talk any more. Okay? No more talking.Talking’s never a good idea. I wanna dance.
Orthodox Man (her client) Dance?
(She goes to the Victrola, puts on a jaunty Tin Pan Alley tune.)
Manke: There, come on let’s dance. (She pulls him to his feet.)
Orthodox Man: No, no, I can’t.
Manke: What do you mean you can’t?
Orthodox Man: It’s not allowed…
Manke: “Not allowed?” You’ll pay to shtup me but you won’t dance with me?
From The God of Vengeance
The God of Vengeance was translated into multiple languages enjoying a long life abroad. Shalom Asch’s works are many and varied. He eventually wrote in English. In an attempt to show religious similarities, one trilogy examines pointedly Christian subjects. It elicited backlash from both sides.
Also featuring Mimi Lieber and Stephen Rattazzi.
The outstanding cast can act, sing, and dance. Many speak perfect Yiddish. Well integrated onstage, Co-Composers/Music Directors- Lisa Gutkin and Aaron Halva play multiple instruments joined by the equally skilled Matt Darriau.
Emily Rebholtz’s Costumes reflect the time/place/people like archival photos. Choreography by David Dorfman aesthetically captures tradition and context with skill.
Director Rebecca Teichman has illuminated a complicated story in accessible, affecting manner. Intermingling musical numbers with dialogue enhances rather than distracts from both aspects of the production. Use of the translation screen works well. Actors are given space to inhabit their characters.
Forewarned: This is another production of some length ( 1 3/4 hours) without an intermission! (A current fad with which I disagree past 75 minutes.)
Photos by Carol Rosegg Opening: Shalom Asch-Max Gordon Moore & Lemmel- Richard Topol
Indecent by Paula Vogel Created by Paula Vogel and Rebecca Taichman Directed by Rebecca Taichman Projection Design- Tal Yarden Cort Theatre 138 West 48th Street
While impossible to wrap one’s mind around extremes of worldwide refugee/immigrant suffering, the experience of a single man hits home with unerring aim. When A Man of Good Hope was scheduled at BAM, President Obama was still in the White House. Little did its host or creators realize how much more the play’s powerful message would resonate in what has become a toxic atmosphere of isolationism and bigotry.
The production can arguably be called a people’s opera – which is to say it features operatic arias in tandem with traditional African music and pop. Indigenous percussive movement, freewheeling staging, and costumes made of street clothes with African touches, give it the aura of being put on by itinerant players which couldn’t be further from the truth. Actors sing (in several languages), rhythmically dance, and play seven marimbas – mallet-struck wooden xylophones, occupying both sides of a raked stage surrounded by corrugated metal. The only scenery/props are door frames, cardboard guns, placards, and boxes. No more is needed.
As told to South African writer and scholar, Jonny Steinberg (a white man) over the course of a year, A Man of Good Hope (after his 2015 book) dramatizes the inadvertent pilgrimage of Somali Asad Abdullahi. Then living in a Cape Town shanty, its protagonist was cobbling together a living making deliveries when Steinberg paid for his subject’s time in order to make it feasible for him to be off the hustle. Every interview was conducted in the author’s western car with clear view of oncoming trouble. Abdullahi had learned his lesson well. (By the end of the process, he and his family were admitted to The United States – after which, alas, we know nothing.)
At eight years-old, Abdullahi witnessed the murder of his mother, was put on a truck by his uncle and then separated from an accompanying cousin when the 15 year-old was conscripted into the army. Shown kindness by a tea seller, at nine, he found himself nursing (feeding, wiping, washing) her through a gunshot wound to the leg. She would eventually abandon the boy.
As he (often unwillingly) moved from Somalia through Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Johannesburg, the boy grew up facing poverty, xenophobia, repeated violence by both a diverse roster of rebels and his “own” people (the Somali “clan” system is omnipresent), married, had a child, divorced, and married again.
Still, this is not a piece made up solely of cruelty and racism. Our hero perseveres. Every village presents a fresh start, every human connection a new opportunity to work with others. He’s hard working and resourceful. There are hopeful welcomes, reunions, and successes along the way. Nothing is taken for granted, yet the character himself is not portrayed as flawless. Pragmatically Abdullahi put one foot in front of the other, never becoming like those who made his life serially horrific. Somewhere over the horizon was America where it’s always safe, there are no guns, everyone is rich…
A Man of Good Hope is a testament to human spirit and the power of brotherhood almost as much as an historical warning against discrimination, violence, and utter lack of compassion. It’s illuminating, entertaining, and exhausting. (It could successfully be cut by at least half an hour.) What ultimately keeps us (the audience) from being enveloped by fatalism is likely musicalization – often buoyant, pulsing tunes, empathetic vocals, and gestural dance. Still, if one prays or has an inclination to political action, this offers ample reason to do both.
The Isango Ensemble – all sizes, shapes, ages and colors, is terrific. Director Mark Dornford-May does a wonderful job of making ebb and flow seem organic; keeping energy high, focus complete. Drama is visceral. Hope is happy. My single caveat is that it’s difficult to understand a great many of the strong accents; we get the gist, but particulars are too often lost. (Speech & Dialogue – Lesley Nott Manim)
Abdullahi is played by the appealing Siphosethu Juta as an eight year-old, Zoleka Mpotsha as a youth, Luvo Tamba as a young man and Ayanda Tikolo as a grown man. The succession is seamless. Busiswe Ngejane and Pauline Malefane have particularly beautiful voices. Mandisi Dyantyis is a marvelously visual conductor.
Photos of The Company by Rebecca Greenfield
A Man of Good Hope
Based on the book by Jonny Steinberg Isango Ensemble/Young Vic Directed by Mark Dornford-May Music- Mandisi Dyantyis with the Ensemble Movement- Lungelo Ngamiana BAM Howard Gilman Opera House Through February 19, 2017
In 1966, Day of Absence, directed by its author, Douglas Turner Ward, premiered at the St. Marks Playhouse. Its success partially enabled the founding of The Negro Ensemble Company the following year. Turner Ward became Artistic Director. This season’s December production at Theater 80 St. Marks begins the Company’s 50th season. It was directed by original cast member, Arthur French.
Here come ole Roy down the street/Ho, can’t you hear those scufflin feet/He would rather sleep than eat./And tha tha tha that’s what I like about the south… “That’s What I Like About the South” Phil Harris
Albert Eggleston and Jimmy Gary Jr.
We find ourselves in a nameless southern town, slow as molasses, mired in traditional bigotry. The entirely black cast – except for a newsman – appears in whiteface. This is a direct nod to both white (Al Jolson), and negro performers who made careers entertaining in blackface. Laconic farmers Clem (Jimmy Gary, Jr.) and Luke (Albert Eggleston) could fit a truck in the space between comments. Suddenly, Clem feels a shift in the atmosphere.
At the home of John (Daniel Carlton) and Mary (China L. Colston), their ceaselessly wailing baby makes the couple aware mammy (nanny) Lula hasn’t shown up for work. Mary doesn’t know one end of a diaper from another. She hasn’t a clue how to quiet the infant. Nor can the lady of the house cook breakfast for her husband. When John goes to fetch Lula, he finds her whole neighborhood deserted. Mary is helpless. John escapes to work.
China L. Colston and Daniel Carlton; Allie Woods
Non-plussed Mayor Henry (Charles Weldon) has had to dress, feed, and drive himself today. “Get Mandy and Rufus to straighten up in here, “ he commands. Three men in nightclothes storm in, “There are no servants! All the nigras have disappeared; very last one!!” “Y’all must be drunk,” Henry responds, “half this town is colored! They must be here somewhere, probly playin’ hide and seek. Organize emergency squads.”
Someone is sent to check jails and hospitals, someone else to stop trains and buses passing through. Production has halted. Everything’s filthy. Public safety officials have been “denied their daily arrests, municipal judges are prevented from issuing sentences…” Mr. Clan denies driving the nigras away. “We want them to go when we tell them to go and not before!” Reverend Pious thinks it’s voodoo. When sister cities refuse to lend nigras from chain gangs, Henry doesn’t know where to turn.
Bill Jay as Clan
He will issue a personal appeal on television. The entire cast, dressed in red, white and blue – some in flag configurations – span out behind their representative. “With fond memories…he begins. Citizens call out like a Revival Meeting while others mumble, encourage, comment, punctuate…”You’re part of us, you belong to us. Think of all the fine times we had together, you singin’ those old coon songs…”
The city is crippled.
Jay Ward, Cecilia Antoinette, Aaron Lloyd
Just as an exercise, replace the word nigra/negro/black with the word immigrant or Jew or Gay. Observe fellow citizens who now feel they have a license to shoot on sight, to smear online, to leave horrific insignias in playgrounds and deface library books. Note how “White Supremacists” are looking for new signage, not as a signal for change but rather one of subterfuge. This, alas, is what keeps The Day of Absence topical and important.
The production itself was a mixed bag of those who didn’t take it seriously or didn’t know their lines (at the last performance?!) and actors who understood its worth.
Katherine Roberson’s Costume Design and Ali Turns Make-Up worked beautifully to evoke the proper mood.
Photos by Jonathan Slaff Opening: Charles Weldon and The Company
The Negro Ensemble Company presents Day of Absence by Douglas Turner Ward Directed by Arthur French Theatre 80 St. Marks December 11, 2016