In 2004, our Morris Cafritz Center for the Arts hosted a fall’s worth of programming celebrating the work of Pulitzer Prize winning cartoonist, book author, screenwriter and playwright Jules Feiffer and Jules introduced DC to the character of Naomi Wallach, a fiery, domesticated ideologue, described in his stage directions as “a public school teacher and a communist, dressed as if she has no interest in how she looks.” A BAD FRIEND tells the story of Naomi’s daughter Rose, an eighteen-year-old enduring the vicissitudes of adolescence in a family of 1950s firebrands. Naomi embraces Josef Stalin and the Soviet Union while her increasingly skeptical husband, Shelly, learns of the infamous Doctors’ Plot in the weeks following Stalin’s death. Naomi’s ferocious loyalty to Stalin is but one of several instances of misplaced trust as her ambitious Hollywood screenwriting brother follows in the footsteps of Clifford Odets, while Rose befriends both an FBI agent and an older painter with a mysterious agenda in this suspenseful, moving drama about family loyalty and political betrayal.
With all the earnest political passions that Naomi and husband Shelly wear on their sleeves, we watch the drama through the ironic lens of history and the skeptical perspective of young Rose. For the parents in this play—-True Believers and Fellow Travelers—are models of cultural and political commitment. They are raging through their own fervent years, decrying the amorality of Capitalism with all their soul and might. And we know that they are also in for a fall; one that history will soon provide. This is a play about getting one’s politics a bit wrong—betting on the horse that lost, as it were—and, at the same, it’s an indictment of the means by which our own country has often snuffed out political dissent. That Jules Feiffer should interlace both the folly of far-Left Utopianism with the brass-knuckle crackdown of those in power here in America suggests something of the political sophistication that has characterized Jules Feiffer’s work for half a century. This lovely piece of writing is shrewd enough to look at the 1950’s from a variety of perspectives, and it gets the Plight and Demise of Progressivism in America right. This play reminds all of us that we have lost quite a lot in our country; not just those on the Left, but everyone engaged in what passes for political discourse today.
The figure of Naomi passes from passion to disillusionment to a kind of resignation in old age which is both personally heart-breaking and politically tragic. So much fervor in youth and, in the end, so much waste; so much silence.
The feminist answer to the collapse of Naomi as political firebrand arrived on our Theater J the very next year in the undaunted energies of a Next Generation of Politicized Women (not quite “Third Wave Feminism” but in between 2nd and 3rd) as we ran into a veritable pack of Wonder Women; call them The Women Who Fight Back.
The rock group BETTY and their show BETTY RULES was so successful in DC that we brought it back for a second, sold-out engagement. After a successful, initial seven month Off-Broadway run in 2003-04, BETTY returned to their old hometown with the story of what they’d been doing since they left. Before evolving into the wild and theatrical rock band they are to this day, BETTY got its start in DC as an edgy acapella/spoken word/techno beat trio. After years of jamming in their Dad’s blue-collar garage in Fairfax, VA, singer-songwriter sisters Amy and Elizabeth Ziff, found talented bass player Alyson Palmer after putting a call-out on DC’s local alternative rock station, WHFS 99.1 FM. Fierce Elizabeth (guitar), funky Alyson (bass) and funny Amy (cello) joined forces and began performing as BETTY in the late 80s at a birthday party for legendary 9:30 Club owner, Dodie Bowers. Their success that night led rapidly to bigger gigs. Within a month of their first appearance they were touring nationally and internationally and shared the bill at rallies and extravaganzas starring James Brown, Patti LaBelle, and The B-52’s. Soon after, they wrote and performed the two-act musical play, BETTY: INSIDE OUT at DC Space. BETTY continued to work the DC music circuit, performing at local DC favorites like Blues Alley, The Birchmere, and The Bayou.
Shortly after the launch of BETTY’s DC career, they were booked at NYC’s Bottom Line where they were discovered and cast as the house band on HBO’s first educational series, Encyclopedia. In the fall of ’87, the women relocated to New York City and dove into the independent music scene where word-of-mouth about their uncategorizable live show led to tours through Europe, Canada, Australia and across the United States. These exciting years are all chronicled in BETTY RULES, as are the subsequent ups and down, highs and lows, heartbreaks and breakthroughs that have come their way over the past two decades.
BETTY RULES is a collaboration between the women of BETTY and Michael Greif, director of RENT, and it’s the rock band’s self-actualized dramatization of the true story of their 20-year career together as a working rock group. While BETTY RULES is about the wily ways girl rockers resort to in keeping their dreams, hearts, and lives together, it is the emotional tricks of the trade they pick up on the way that forms the core of the show. As the trio shuttles back and forth across the landmines and triumphs of their musical lives, BETTY combines humor, drama and a unique and vibrant sound equal parts rock, cabaret, pop, a capella and spoken word.
BETTY’s larger-than-life personas has clicked on television as well, most prominently on THE L WORD where they’ve been the house band, contributed the show’s title song, and where Elizabeth has worked as a composer, writer and producer for years. In addition to numerous other television and film credits, BETTY has established political activist bonafides as well. BETTY fights fiercely for causes they believe in like equal rights, finding cures for breast cancer and AIDS, Planned Parenthood, the Pro Choice movement, an end to sexual violence and, as they like to say, “everybody’s inalienable right to dance naked in the streets.” Their performances have helped raised millions of dollars for these causes. The DC production of BETTY RULES played host to benefit performances on behalf Human Rights Campaign, featuring the creator and producer of The L Word, Ilene Chaiken, as well as a night for Planned Parenthood.
We share this biographical review because BETTY really helped Theater J liberate itself and its audience with its Big Sound, Big Outreach, Big Moxie, and Big Box Office too. We continue to love BETTY because of their musicality, their personality, their theatricality, and their on-stage charisma. We loved Amy and Elizabeth’s father, the late actor Irv Ziff, who performed with us in wonderful plays by the late Arthur Miller. BETTY remains a rambunctious group with awesome musical chops and BETTY RULES was an expertly assembled piece of theater. It was, in hindsight, a wonderfully risky project for a small theater like ours to have become investing so deeply in, and the rewards—in both the 2005 and 2006 runs were appreciable.
As it so happens, the gay and lesbian programming track at Theater J has been with us from the start with the 1999 world premiere of Deb Filler’s FILLER UP, and the 2001 DC premiere of Susan Miller’s MY LEFT BREAST (part of 4-play series “Sex and Guilt in the Jewish Theater”). It’s a track that’s always also included questions of family, identity, and searches for God, values and meaning.
Let’s once again check out our gallery of Divas:
After reigning Off-Broadway in one of New York’s longest running one-woman shows, Sherry Glaser reprised her mirthful, bittersweet ode to family dysfunction in FAMILY SECRETS during our 2006-07 season. In the play, Glaser first introduces us to Mort Fisher, the no-nonsense, accountant father, who describes his mortification over his daughter’s bringing her female lover to his wedding anniversary. Next we meet the unflappable housewife Bev, who cackles as she unflinchingly describes her midlife meltdown. Glaser then introduces us to Mort and Bev’s bisexual daughter Fern, who acts out—in hysterically painful detail—the natural childbirth of her daughter. Glaser transitions to Mort and Bev’s rebellious sixteen-year-old daughter Sandra, who is beset by a slew of adolescent problems. Finally, we meet the feisty Grandmother Rose, who giddily describes her second chance at love and invites the audience to the next Passover Seder.
What made Glaser’s show so endearing and impressive was her endowing each character with warmth and humor without sparing us any of their flaws. Her show has a fascinating, triumphant, if somewhat tragedy-touched trajectory, and it effortlessly draws the audience into these characters’ lives. The play is heartwarming in an almost shameless way, inviting the audience to join in singing with the elderly grandmother in a round of “Sunrise, Sunset.” Shmaltz, indeed, and yet a pitch-perfect ending for Sherry’s show.
We include Sherry Glaser in the gallery of Theater J Divas not so much for the family content of her hit solo show as for the ferocious spirit Sherry radiates as a political activist. We’ll never forget Sherry heading down 16th Street to the White House every day—while still performing her show up the block on 16th & Q at night—and presenting her own brand of political theater daily as part of her Breasts Not Bombs project. Somedays topless, some days filter-less, Sherry let it all hang out in her anti-war work, combining theater, political advocacy, Queer identity consciousness raising, and community building during her very productive DC residency. Sherry Glaser remains a renegade in her art and life and, with FAMILY SECRETS, she found a heart-warming vehicle to bring audiences closer to her craft and to her artistry. Once hooked, Sherry let the world have it with the depths of her passion and radical whimsy that continues to inform her very unique brand of political theater.