And Finally (!) the last installment of My Talk to Hadassah (part 5, on the Evolving Role of Women on the American/Israeli stage)

Tessa Klein & Halo Wines in SLEEPING ARRANGEMENTS, directed by Delia Taylor

2007 saw us continue to focus on family themes as explored by female authors in our world premiere adaptation of SLEEPING ARRANGEMENTS based on Laura Shaine Cunningham’s heartwarming memoir about growing up fatherless, and then motherless, in the Bronx.  Working from a script penned by the author/playwright/journalist herself, Sleeping Arrangements deals with the potentially wrenching predicament of being orphaned at a vulnerable age but, with the writer deploying a light touch, chooses to focus instead on the heroine’s being raised most lovingly by the unlikeliest of surrogates—two eccentric uncles and a truly grandiose grandmother from Minsk.

Laura’s play, like the memoir, on which it’s based, is a soulful chronicle where hardship and heartbreak are always inflected with feelings of love. While Sleeping Arrangements is often sassy and comic, at bottom it’s a poignant paean to growing up. To paraphrase Cunningham’s own words, “If tragedy brought our family together, it’s comedy that kept us close.”

But the show’s emphasis on comedy was not, as it turned out, everyone’s cup of tea.  Its gentle humor perhaps didn’t land with our more gentle-resistant crowd.  For those tough cookies, we brought in, over successive seasons, the double-barreled diva duo of Judy Gold and Sandra Bernhard.

Judy Gold, whose latest show, MOMMY QUEEREST (It’s Jewdy’s Show), actually begins previewing tonight, is the 6-foot-3-inch, Kosher, gay, award-winning comedienne, and mother of two boys who has both traded in—and then has totally subverted—the stereotypical Jewish mother typology. Gold’s many jokes about the cliche of the Jewish matriarch, as well as the neurosis about becoming a typical Jewish mother herself spurred her quest to find out what makes Jewish mothers different from non-Jewish mothers. Traveling across the United States for five years, she and award winning playwright Kate Moira Ryan interviewed over 50 Jewish women, of different ages, occupations and ethnicities, ranging from non-practicing to ultra-orthodox to “confused;” from Holocaust survivors to converts.

The questions ranged from reflective (“How are you like and not like your mother?”), to droll (“Who do Jewish little girls get to look up to?”) to deeply personal (“What is God to you?”). The results, described by many in the New York press, was “a hilarious and poignant look at the mother-daughter bond, Jewish culture, and what makes a Jewish mother, well, a Jewish mother.” And so it was with us in DC as well. A great 5 week run.

The play is structurally innovative, interlacing testimonies from a random assortment of women with Judy’s own hysterical stand-up rants about dealing with her mother and being a mom herself. While we’ve had great one-woman shows at Theater J before, Judy Gold’s 25 Questions is formally much more intricate, and ultimately more ambitious than any typical stand-up act.  And most of all it’s hilarious.

And God help us (this is me praying this morning in advance of last rehearsals before previews tonight), her new piece should be even fresher, funnier, and certainly, well more gay!  And musical!  First audiences, here we come!!!

We’ll be using the same cabaret seating arrangment for MOMMY QUEEREST that we used for Sandra Bernhard’s WITHOUT YOU I’M NOTHING—a fabulous experience for us artistically that caused just a wee bit of controversy when we performed it back in September of 2008 (and you can scroll back into older postings here on the blog to read all about our blowing up as Sandra’s Sarah Palin video went viral in a pandemic way).

Much as Sandra represents a link in the chain of amazingly audacious and talented comic Jewish actresses, there’s something wholly unique about Sandra’s act. Part  chanteuse, cultural critic, pop phenomenon, (former) best girl friend to Madonna, and—for our purposes—the wonderful niece of Jack and Faye Moskowitz, Washington cultural fixtures and major leadership assets here at Theater J and the DCJCC.  Yes, Sandra  came to DC to be among friends and family.  But more crucially, she came to Theater J to reignite a show that launched her star into orbit some 20 years ago.   She was the perfect artist to kick-start a wholly new kind of season for Theater J; hard-hitting, provocative, full of variety, ambition, international cachet, and radical honesty!

Sandra teaches her own brand of liberation theology and she preaches the gospel of loving oneself for all one’s underappreciated assets and beauty.  She is a walking, strutting, singing, slinking definition of the word Pride; Gay Pride, Jewish Pride, Flint Michigan Pride, and Proud to Still Be Kicking Butt in the Business Pride. 

From all that Sandra-generated good feeling, we can a moment for some Theater J Pride too:  What kind of awesome Jewish theater company is this that can host an act like Sandra and her amazing band, the Rebellious Jezebels, and then follow it up with a bracing, mainstage world premiere offering about the torn conscience of a Serbian perpetrator stuck in a Bosnian kitchen with an awesome and unasked for responsibility, in Stefanie Zadravec’s HONEY BROWN EYES?

Maia Di Santi and Alexander Strain in HONEY BROWN EYES, directed by Jessica Lefkow

Blog readers will know (or be able to index back and re-read) that HONEY BROWN EYES told a harrowing yet humane story that brought focus to two mothers, one Bosnian-Muslim (Alma, pictured above) and one Serbian-Christian (Jovanka, pictured below).

Barbara Rappaport and Joel Reuben Ganz

We come to identify with both the Muslim and Christian sisters and brothers in this play, and we see them both as victims and survivors, resistance fighters and hidden children.  The play marked a departure of sorts for us at Theater J. No Jewish characters, no Jewish author, no Jewish teachings, per se. Other than the watchword that “Never Again” may there be genocide in our time. And yet there it unfolded before us. And unfold before it will again elsewhere.

Alma and Jovanka are Women in War, perhaps a 5th typology all its own. And one could wax on, and on, about the 3 generations of women we had on stage in HONEY BROWN EYES; a child hiding under the floor boards, her soon to be deceased mother, murdered before us in a kind of mercy killing to spare her from the rape camps, and an older grandmother—call her a Serbian Christian Babushkie—who survives by her wits and her culinary cunning and displays enough of an open heart to feed and shelter an enemy combatant whose fled his position at the frontlines of the Bosnian resistance. It’s a beautiful play, ferociously written and staged, by strong female theater artists (Stefanie Zadravec and Jessica Lefkow respectively) and how proud we were that this play anchored our “Ethics and War” series and then went on to win our first ever Helen Hayes Award for Best New Play.

A fun place to stop, wouldn’t ya say? Or suspend the discussion, for another day’s consideration. More sermons to come. Suffice to say—with much work awaiting—that the cause for women staking claim to our stage has never been stronger. There’s something very right going on in our theater, and it has to do with the stories we’re telling about and by our better halves; our feminine selves.

My talk at Hadassah concluded by looking forward to this seasons offerings of strong women on stage. But not before also talking about our portrait of Israeli women (SHIT!!! I FORGOT TO WRITE ABOUT THEM!!!) Here they are:

Iris Bahr in DAI (Enough)

And wasn’t Iris awesome in displaying her own gallery of a dozen different Israelis, Arabs, and assorted visitors to a Tel Aviv cafe, depicting them in the mortal moments before a bomb-blast would interrupt their lives irrevocably?

Iris Bahr in DAI, directed by Will Pomerantz

And here’s Leila Buck, our wonderful Lebanese-Christian-American artist whose IN THE CROSSING presents her chronicle of returning to Lebanon with her Jewish husband in the summer of 2006 right before war broke out and bombs began to fall in Lebanon and Israel.

Leila Buck in IN THE CROSSING

And, of course, there’s the Israeli play that anchored last season’s “Voices from a Changing Middle East Festival,” Hillel Mitelpunkt’s hit Israeli play, THE ACCIDENT, which featured portraits of three strong, vibrant, yet flawed Israeli characters, each of a different decade in age, in the persons of Shiri, her mother Nira, and their friend/arch-rival, Tami.

Jennifer Mendenhall and Eliza Bell in THE ACCIDENT, directed by Sinai Peter

Becky Peters and Jennifer Mendenhall

So much to say. But not here. Index back. And we’ll double back to consider Shiri’s redemptive role. And Nira’s redemptive, Judaica-salvaging role. And Tami’s truth-uttering cathartic role. All fascinating depictions.

And now, here finally, is the gallery you’ve read about and will continue to read about over this 2009-10 season. The Wonder Women (of Steel) on Theater J’s stage:

Tana Hicken and Holly Twyford in Neil Simon's LOST IN YONKERS, directed by Jerry Whiddon

It’s quite interesting to consider the radically different typologies that Bella Kurnitz and her mother, whom we only come to know as Grandma Kurnitz, embody. Granda is, in fact, described as being made of steel. She could be sold for scrap, quips her son, Louis the gangster. She’s hardened in a very different way than any of our other husband-less Divas. She’s coarsened by life; by loss; by work; by bitterness (not unlike Wendy Wasserstein’s writerly Flora, who diagnoses her own illness as being “allergic to her own bitterness” — remember way back to part 1?)

Bella yearns for softness. For love. Like Holly Twyford’s other characters at Theater J, she’s a damaged woman who’s healed in the course of the drama. In this case, it’s her nephews who help. But it’s also in her boldly, bravely confronting her mother that she makes her critical passage from girlhood to womanhood. She emerges as a truly strong woman of valour right before our eyes.

Judy Gold is MOMMY QUEEREST, directed by Amanda Charlton

The plight of the Darfuri refugee Hawa and a female journalist grounds IN DARFUR by Winter Miller

and finally, our exploration of Israeli women in…

MIKVEH by Hadar Galron, directed by Shirley Serotsky

So much more to say.

Anyone (at long last) care to comment?