On This Opening Night, “Gumbo For Breakfast” – First Posting from Jennifer Mendenhall

Here’s the first of what we hope will be many postings from our new Associate Artist in Residence for the season, the great, multiple-award-winning actress, Jennifer Mendenhall. She appears as “the secretary” in IMAGINING MADOFF, opening tonight!

Gumbo for Breakfast

Working at Theater J is just like working at any other theatre in Washington, with one major exception. Your lunch box is on lock down. Theater J is in the building of the Jewish Community Center at 16th and Q streets NW, a venerable old stone building that has seen decades of activity. There is a wonderful display of old photographs on the wall next to the entrance to the theater, showing young Jewish men and women playing tennis on the roof, dining at gala events, gathering to exchange ideas (and probably telephone numbers, in those far off days before facebook and twitter).

It is a kosher building, which means that no food may enter unless it adheres to the rules governing kosher food.

Taking pity on non-Jewish actors, the packet handed out at the first rehearsal of Imagining Madoff simplifies this into a suggestion that we only bring in vegetarian food and snacks, or possibly a tuna fish sandwich. Kosher food options include the Distrikt Bistro downstairs, with a full menu of delicious kosher food, and the lightning swift sale of fresh baked challah bread out of the gift shop across the hall.

When I’m working, I usually pack bags of nuts and fruit so I can snack all day, knowing I won’t get a big enough break to eat a big meal, nor would I want to feel comatose in the rehearsal room. We often work what is called a “straight six”, meaning a six hour rehearsal, with a ten minute break for every hour and a half, and a twenty minute break scheduled roughly half way through the day. Every so often, though, we work a regular “7 out of 8 and a 1/2”, which includes a dinner break of an hour or an hour and a half. And when we are in technical rehearsals, adding all the design elements, we work two “10 out of 12” days, which include a two hour dinner break midway through a twelve hour day.

Breaks are regulated by the actor’s union, Actors Equity Association, a target of many a profanity when we are right in the middle of an exciting discovery and the stage manager (also a union member) calls for a break. But the breaks are there to protect us and to ensure that we get the most out of each day.

Certainly, given an hour for dinner, I could trot off to any of a number of restaurants or grocery stores and buy a meal nearby. This would take a bite out of my weekly paycheck, however, which can be anywhere from $300 to $800 at Washington area theatres, depending on the number of seats that can be sold. Again, AEA is the organization that regulates the pay scale at area theaters. There are several different kinds of contracts: Small Professional Theatre for the mid size houses, League of Resident Theatre for the larger ones. They have their own rules and regulations, and before scoffing at the minutiae they cover, let me tell you I have experienced a dressing room without access to a bathroom and it is not ideal. (We had to wait until the audience had cleared the lobby). Ahhh, the indignity.

Back to dinner, and my husband. Michael Kramer is a lovely man who has appeared onstage at the J, and also has worked here as a stage manager. Everyone who knows him knows that he loves to cook. He often brings baked goods and fruit in to rehearsals for the cast and crew, because he feels that this is one of those pleasant things he can do to make everyone happy. And if everyone is happy, the work benefits. Smart guy. Devious, too.

One of Michael’s recent favorite recipes is for gumbo. Gumbo is a sort of stew, with origins in the South, especially in Louisiana, where people compete to make the best gumbo and take pride in family recipes that have been passed down through the years, changing slightly with each cook’s personality and taste. Kind of like Shakespeare productions: basic ingredients, very adaptable, incurring passionate arguments.

Michael made a huge pot of gumbo during a week that I was in rehearsal starting early in the afternoon and going into the night. This gumbo was designed to be the most unkosher stew imaginable. It had shrimp, which is shellfish and banned, and it had andouille sausage, another big forbidden food. It was also delicious. The idea of not being able to eat this gumbo was distressing. I couldn’t bring it in, and I didn’t think it would be wise to eat it at midnight, unless I wanted to dream about Bernie Madoff in a chef’s hat dancing with ladies dressed like pieces of okra on the lip of a flaming volcano, which I didn’t.

So I ate it for breakfast. For three days running. I worried briefly that its presence in my belly would somehow be in violation, but was reassured that it was not. I love the fact that the building I work in has a culture that demands respect, that imposes restrictions on my behavior, that makes me think about things I otherwise take completely for granted.

Deb Margolin, playwright of Imagining Madoff, says she likes that theatre is an art form that starts in the body and goes back to the body. Having to abide by the kosher law of the JCC building is a gentle reminder of that.

And eating gumbo for breakfast suited me just fine.


One thought on “On This Opening Night, “Gumbo For Breakfast” – First Posting from Jennifer Mendenhall

  1. Dramatically, we thought the play was a dud. It didn’t catch fire until the final 15 minutes — much too long for even an avid theatre buff to wait.

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