For all the alleged controversy we’re said to have been fomenting (that’s the chatter amongst a small circle of folks who receive withering emails from the crazy folks at COPMA), the rest of our 14,000 ticket holders this year (that’s how many have come to SEAGULL, ZERO, and now YONKERS with 10 more days left to go on the run) have been experiencing a Theater J that’s been delivering rich, deep, solid, thought-provoking work that’s been—dare we say it?—pretty much middle of the road. It’s given us a great opportunity to expand our base by bringing in lots of new attendees to the theater; AND we’ve taken up the cause of bringing our story out to as many gathering spots as possible; conferences, classrooms, festivals, places of worship. And now last night, I had the pleasure of reconnecting with the warm folks at Washington Hebrew Congregation where 60 members of their L’Chaim series came to a salon at the home of Van and Sandy Sabel and—since 90% of them had all seen the play–and the other 10% were scheduled to go this weekend—we had an amazing talk about the play in, what began as a great interview (or me) driven by Rabbi Bruce Lustig and then turned into a free flowing discussion with all in attendance.
The rabbi’s finest point was that, after the Brighton Beach/Biloxi Blues/Broadway Bound trilogy that proved so autobiographical of Neil Simon’s youth, here Simon was following up the trilogy with a deeply personal autobiography—not of Simon’s childhood per se—but of the American Jewish community writ large. We talked of the scars of experience that become ameliorated from one generation to the next, and the insistence upon more demonstrative love and affect as Neil Simon himself demonstrates in his own life, leaving the emotionally fraught world of New York that delivered him to the softer, more emotionally affirming world of Los Angeles that seemed to offer comfort in the wake of personal loss.
In fact the most autobiographical material in YONKERS, I submitted, had nothing to do with Bella or Grandma, or even the boys being stuck in a relative’s home; it had to do with Eddie losing a wife to cancer and being stuck as a single parent in the middle of his life and career… Later, I discussed the universal resonance of the play, and its impact upon my very diverse assemblage of students from the University of Michigan and California at Berkeley. I read an excerpt from one of the student essays; this, from a Korean-American student who saw his own family drama being played out on stage. Here’s a bit of his entry:
The play “Lost in Yonkers” had many deep underlying themes, such as the
hardships experienced during the Great Depression, lack of attention
to disabled persons and the struggles that evolve with adolescence.
What struck me the most was the conflict between the old generation
that went though hardships and cultural shock during initial stage of
the settlement and the young generations who were born and raised just
as other Americans were. Granma, a German immigrant who tried to keep
the family intact while simultaneously striving hard to survive and
become successful in the stage of ambiguity, was viewed as cold-
hearted and cruel to her children and grandchildren. However, deep
inside of her emotions, she had unlimited love and pity of her
children and grandchildren, who were likely to go through difficult
times just like she had when she crossed the Atlantic ocean. For
example, she slowly opened her mind and started to become more
accepting toward her open-minded children who are more used to showing
expressions and feelings. Because both her perpetual love and care
were expressed in a form of excessive protection and arduous gestures,
family members didn’t understand her and rather feared her at first.
I had a very similar experience like “Yonkers.” When my parents saw
bigger opportunities in Seoul, a capital city that none of us had ever
been to, my father made a grand decision to send my brother, my mother
and I to the city. We used to live in a small fishing village for
twelve years. We always lived and spent time together. It was such a
drastic change, what with my mom having to take over my dad’s role of
keeping his children disciplined and safe in the new environment. My
mother was the scariest individual in the city, who would not hesitate
to use force if my brother and I would ruin the “face” of the family
and act like fatherless children. Thinking in retrospect, her actions
were rather necessary to keep the family intact and to keep us
disciplined. It would have been hard for my mom to be away from her
husband for the sake of their children’s well being and proper
education. I deeply respect my parents’ decision and thus strive my
best to keep up with their sacrifice and expectations.
Hence, I think that in both of the cases there exists a rather natural
conflict between the elder and younger generations of a normal happy
family rather than the dysfunctional family that genuinely dislikes
each other. My early life seemed mean and hostile from time to time,
but I realize now that it was for the collective good of the family. I
recognize that there could have been and could be a better and more
peaceful way to achieve wellness, but that changes often come abruptly
as opposed to peacefully. Paralleled alongside my very own experience,
the play reminded me of my past and made me appreciate even more my
parents’ braveness and their sacrifice.
It’s all about outreach. Opening the circle. Bringing new kindred spirits into our community, making soulful connections with the art on stage, and in dialogues beyond the stage as well.