Curtain Up: New Haven explores the art of Jewish theater


By Cindy Mindell

WOODBRIDGE – First there was Yiddish theater, and then the iconic English-language works: Fiddler on the Roof, The Diary of Anne Frank, anything by Neil Simon.

But what has happened to Jewish theater since the ‘70s? The Jewish Plays Project (JPP), the brainchild of Manhattan-based theater artist David Winitsky, is one way to find out.

Founded in 2011, the JPP is an incubator for new plays on Jewish themes and contemporary Jewish experience. The JPP is hosted by a JCC or synagogue that mounts a playwriting competition whose submissions are reviewed by a local committee and whittled down to three finalists. Those works are staged for an audience who votes on a favorite, and the winner gets a month-long performance residency and workshop in New York.

Michael Bradley Cohen and Bill DeMerritt in Jim Shankman’s “A Jew from east Jesus” at the JPP’s NJ Jewish Playwriting Contest

Michael Bradley Cohen and Bill DeMerritt in Jim Shankman’s “A Jew from east Jesus” at the JPP’s NJ Jewish Playwriting Contest

Now the JPP is coming to New Haven, sponsored by JCC of Greater New Haven and produced by DeDe Jacobs-Kamisar, cultural arts manager and founder of the JCC’s new Theaterworks division. Jacobs-Kamisar, who earned a Master’s degree in theater management from the Yale School of Drama (YSD) last year, is joined in JPP by fellow YSD alumni and current students, including review committee members MJ Kaufman (’13), Whitney Dibo (’14), and Reuven Russell (’87), and actors Bill Demeritt (’12) and Adina Verson (’12). The project is co-sponsored in New Haven by Michael and Jo-Ann Price and the JCC Cultural Arts Advisory Board, headed by playwright Doron Ben-Atar, who heads the Fordham University history department.

From January through March, each member of the JPP review committee read and ranked the 10 play submissions independently, then gathered to debate which selections would be “the most ‘appropriate,’” according to Ben-Atar.

“’Appropriate’ is not about taste,” he says. “We selected three very different pieces that represent three very different Jewish plays – not in a traditional sense, not Jewish shtick or about a kind of coming back to religion or secularizing a Jewish theme. Rather, each has a dynamic fabulous story in its own right that unfolds in a surprising fashion.”

“What’s really wonderful about this project, in my mind, is that it changes the experience of going to theater,” says Ben-Atar. “As an audience, we are primarily passive: we applaud, laugh, or fall asleep. Theater has been sterilized to a great degree in the Western world; it used to be more interactive. By participating in the production and selection process, the JPP audience is empowered.”

“One of the most encouraging and yet depressing elements of the theater world is that there are multiple Jewish writers and authors who write interesting and wonderful things that never see the stage,” says Ben-Atar. “That’s part of the plight of many writers – the stuff that gets performed very often is not the best stuff but rather, artistic directors choose works that had previous success or appeal to a broad audience. The Jewish Plays Project demonstrates that there are hundreds of people writing Jewish plays and many of them are excellent.”

Bill Demeritt first became involved in JPP last year, at JCC MetroWest in West Orange, N.J. A New Yorker, Demeritt joined the New Haven JPP in order to work again with Jacobs-Kamisar and Verson, and “because I like to give back to the communities that I’m a part of,” he says. Putting together staged readings of new plays over the course of a few hours brings a mix of experiences. “You don’t know what you’ll get but it’s fun to be in on the ground floor, to help other people with their vision,” he says.

Adina Verson was invited to participate by JPP founder David Winitsky.

“I’ve never done a ‘collection’ of Jewish plays,” says Verson. “I think that experiencing three plays together, with the common thread of Judaism, can lead to new understanding of how our culture is perceived in contemporary life – the stereotypes, the themes – and allow ourselves to see where we individually fit in, and perhaps bringing our community closer together.”

There are many ways to define “Jewish theater.” For Ben-Atar, the medium does not necessarily involve Jewish characters or a Jewish writer. “No less a philosopher than Gershon Scholem, a great scholar of Judaism, said that Jewish culture is what Jews do. I don’t accept that,” he says. “I don’t look at Woody Allen’s movies, for example, and say, ‘This is Jewish’ just because Woody Allen was born Jewish. Rather, Jewish theater is theater that engages with Jewish issues, texts, traditions, concerns, etc. in a direct way.”

Bill Demeritt sees the art-form as a way to address specific experiences in a detailed way. “Not the ‘Jewish experience,’ but certain cultural touchstones we share as ‘Members of the Tribe,’ things that won’t be examined elsewhere,” he says.  As a work exploring a Jewish theme is in gestation, “it’s nice to give it to the community to which it refers, so that they can see it first and have a chance to give input,” Demeritt says. “Any artist’s work is their child and you have to strike a balance between coddling and nurturing it and sending it out into the world. If you’re writing something from the perspective of a specific cultural identity or a demographic group, bring it to that group first.”

Verson considers “Jewish theater” as any play with ties to Judaism, “whether that be the themes and characters, or the playwright’s background. But I hope it isn’t theater that is ONLY for the Jewish community,” she says. “I still like to think of the U.S. as a ‘melting pot’ and our stories are a part of that. Culturally appropriate casting is a very hot topic in the theater world right now, and it’s becoming clearer that there are actors of every race and denomination. Now when there are stories being told of a particular culture, we are able to cast actors OF that culture – like the mainly Philippine cast of Here Lies Love at the Public Theater, or using Latino actors in the most recent revival of West Side Story – and then being able to cast ‘colorblind’ when the story is not about a specific race or culture. It’s a topic I’m really interested in, particularly at this time. I think that JPP can help us define the stories that are OURS, what part of our culture is still defined as ‘Jewish,’ and what parts have, for lack of a better phrase, ‘melted’ into the bigger pot.”

Estelle Singerman by David Rush: Magical realism in the Chicago night as Estelle seeks someone to say Kaddish for her. Perhaps the Buddhist giraffe will have an answer.

Let Me Go by Jon Caren: A hilarious and heartbreaking look at how to let go of love, death, mothers, sons, sex, and money.

The Karpovsky Variations by Adam Kraar: Three generations of ambitious Jews from the American south leave a contemporary daughter searching for a sound.

The Jewish Plays Project First Annual New Haven Jewish Playwriting Contest will be held on Sunday, May 5, 7 p.m. at the Off-Broadway Theater, 41 Broadway (behind Toad’s Place), New Haven. For ticket or other information visit www.jccnh.org or call (203) 387-2522, ext. 300.

Comments? email cindym@jewishledger.com

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