Follow up from the ATHE Conference – Summary of Staging Strife and Solidarity

Our Locally Grown playwright, Jacqueline Lawton, has a wonderfully spirited write-up of the recent 8 person panel discussion at the recent ATHE Conference on the history of dramatizing the Black-Jewish Relationship on Stage.

Read the whole thing here

Jacqueline does a great job of honing in on perhaps the most crucial aspect of our moderator, Faedra Carpenter’s introduction, where she cites Julius Lester, the African-American Jewish scholar, who outlines key elements of a shared Black-Jewish narrative:

1. We were both enslaved.
2. We were demonized and denigrated by the white majority.
3. We were forced from our homelands and dispersed across the world, now living in a diaspora
4. We were forced to live in segregation and ghettoization.
5. We faced political injustice and discrimination against our civil rights.
6. We faced violent attacks and torture in the form of pogroms, race riots and lynchings.

Jacqueline writes:

We have danced, prayed, and wept together. We have marched arm-in-arm demanding equality, justice, and civil rights. We have fought against one another, standing at arm’s length in hatred, mistrust, and confusion.

Our ability to dramatize both the strife and solidarity experiences on the stage offers audiences room to witness, interrogate, celebrate and heal from our many experiences. The act of dramatizing the Black and Jewish relationship was the topic for the next section.

My own presentation on the panel consisted of a short introduction to my play GOODNIGHT IRENE and then the reading of the opening scene, which Jacqueline has excerpted. The full comments are available on my Facebook notes page. Here’s a bit:

GOODNIGHT IRENE, which started as a commission from Manhattan Theater Club and the National Foundation for Jewish Culture, was a play produced 3 times and read over a dozen from 1994 to 2001, that led me to seek out the DCJCC in 1997 (due to a NY Times Op Ed by Frank Rich entitled Reverse Exodus), and a fateful meeting there led me into producing. IRENE is a play that, for me, much like the black-jewish dialogue itself, became silenced because of 9/11 — when, as Mark Medoff put it in his related work about siblings and race — TOMMY J & SALLY — when matters of race “moved off the back-burner and clear off the stove.” But for a fraught and turbulent period of time—at the fin de ciecle—the issue of two minorities tearing at each other and into each other—like the debate on multiculturalism, affirmative action, racism and anti-Semitish—seemed omnipresent and troublesome.

The play is about the healing narratives we construct in the wake of trauma, and the potentially corrosive impact of truth-telling that over-takes as we are compelled to look at history unvarnished, uninflected by sentiment, emotion, or symbolism. In so doing, the play presents a reading of the Black Jewish Relationship, questioning the authenticity of a particular civil rights era alliance, looking at the Legacy of White Flight from the South Side of Chicago from the vantage point of a post-Crown-Heights New York 22 years later. The play charts the rise to prominence of a moderately progressive, urban affairs oriented magazine called Repair: The Journal for Urban Healing. As events expose its liberal editor Ethan Goodman’s racial hypocrisy, Repair lurches rightward and leads the charge in defaming a documentary film retelling the story of black infantrymen who helped to “liberate” the concentration camps of Dachau and Buchenwald. Such a documentary was indeed made and presented in 1992 and subsequently pulled off the PBS calendar when leading centrist publications charged that the history in the movie had been “faked.”

The play personalizes this story-line. Along with conflicted editor, Ethan, there is Ethan’s best friend, Keith, an African-American attorney whose uncle is one of the veterans in the documentary. It’s a movie that makes a tremendous impact on Keith when he finally sees it, at Ethan’s initial behest.

“That’s what’s so incredible about this movie, Cam. That these guys; these vets — who were treated like shit; forced to eat shit; sleep in shit; were still able to uplift themselves because they had the strength to look out; to reach out, and see the suffering around them, in others. And just seeing it…

“The Clock Tower frozen at the hour of Liberation.” That’s the first picture you see in the film. There’s this Jew, this survivor. He’s arm-in-arm with my uncle and a guy named Smitty. All the time I’m thinking, “I should have known this story. How come I never heard this story?” They’re at Buchenwald. There’s nothing there now but rock. All they’re doing is looking. Surveying. The moment. Of reckoning. The day their lives were forever changed. Just standing there… The Enormity… That’s your poem, Cammy.”

Cammy is Ethan’s mercurial younger sister who, it turns out, in a big first act surprise for Ethan, is dating Keith. Cammy is attempting to emerge from the shadow of her own tragedy-touched past, a shadow that Ethan both represents and tries to shield her from revisiting. But the documentary’s sentimental deviations from the historical record compel Ethan to up-end Cammy’s emotional scaffolding and demystify one of the healing narratives within their own family history — the legend of The Rainbow Beach Search Party, when a neighborhood banded together to search for their troubled Aunt Irene on the shores of Lake Michigan. It’s a myth Keith buys into:

“You said they organized. With flashlights. A Search Party of their own. And all night, through the dawn, the neighbors called her name. They called “Irene.” Until a peace descended. That’s what you wrote. That’s what we need to remember. Not the bad parts. We’ve been focused on the wrong for too long. What went wrong. All around us. Never stopping to notice. The moments. Of Grace.”

It’s a myth Ethan spends much of the play trying to understand as he uncovers the culpability that the family myth-making is masking.

The play is framed by the character of Anna Deveare Smith being interviewed, twice, once at the top of the show and then at the end, after the big trauams, by the besieged editor Ethan.

* * *

Many more gleanings coming out of the panel — especially important were the contributions of our two scholars, Heather Nathans and James M. SoRelle. Both opened up new lines of inquiry and history to be mined (and dramatized) that we’ll return to discuss in the coming weeks.