By Mara Dresner
Upstreet Barbers in Pittsfield is the unique location of Shakespeare & Company’s world premiere of Kaufman’s Barber Shop by Robert Sugarman, August 14 through Sept. 1.
In 1925, America was booming. In upstate New York, the children of Jewish immigrants had moved out of Yiddish-speaking neighborhoods into America’s mainstream. At Kaufman’s barber shop, a group of successful businessmen and professionals meet regularly to have their hair cut and to socialize, away from a society that accepts them only marginally. Three men, who had early on been tempted to go into vaudeville, find themselves enmeshed in the lives of an immigrant Irish manicurist and an African American shoeshine boy with literary aspirations.
“My father’s the child of Jewish immigrants and was one of a group who grew up in a Yiddish-speaking area in Syracuse, who became quite successful in the 1920s. I started to think what was it like really living the American dream, still living in a constricted society?” Sugarman told the Ledger. “He was a Jewish successful businessman at a time when Jews were still marginal in society. That was the impetus.”
His father was part of a group of professionals who would meet at a barbershop that Sugarman went to as a child until he went to college.
“The question of how secure were Jews in America at that point was a real bone of contention for the people there. They were also very concerned about the sort of analogous or worse status of African Americans at that time, who were much further marginalized; they hadn’t been able to make it into the mainstream, to approach the mainstream as Jews had,” said Sugarman.
While the show isn’t a musical, music ended up having a central role.
Sugarman said that after a reading of the play at Shakespeare & Company, a group “met for a power lunch at Friendly’s in Pittsfield. I was telling them how my dad and his peers often disagreed politically. As kids growing up, they were all in awe of vaudeville, which was strong in Syracuse. Everyone played there – Eddie Cantor, the Marx Brothers, Fanny Brice. They all thought of vaudeville as a [possible] career, and then became successful businesspeople. They would come to our house for dinner and sing.”
Sugarman credits director Regge Life with suggesting there should be music in the play.
“I said, ‘How can we have a piano in the barber shop?’” remembered Sugarman. It turns out that one actor is an expert ukulele player. “[The actors] are now singing in harmony and doing wonderful things. Singing a song becomes crucial in the play in a way I never imagined.”
This is the second time that Life has staged a play in a non-traditional setting. He previously staged a piece about the life of Billie Holiday in a jazz club in New York City.
“Probably the overriding theme is what it is to be an American,” said Life. “They find themselves on the Lower East Side, … making their way in a new community, in a new location. They’re carrying with them their traditions, their culture, their ways. How do you navigate a new environment when you’re truly in the minority? … How do you negotiate a longing to keep with culture and tradition and fit in this new arena called America? … All of them struggle with that in some way, shape or form.”
Sugarman is the author of numerous plays and of two books: Performing Shakespeare: A Way to Learn and Circus for Everyone: Circus Learning Around the World.
Kaufman’s Barber Shop will run Aug. 14 through Sept. 1 at Upstreet Barbers, 442 North Street, Pittsfield. For tickets and information, visit www.shakespeare.org or call (413) 637-3353.