Folksbiene puts on a Sinclair Lewis play that imagines U.S. falling into authoritarianism
By Josefin Dolsten
(JTA) – In 1936, Sinclair Lewis’ play “It Can’t Happen Here” was presented simultaneously by 21 theater companies across the country. The controversial play, which tells the story of a populist president who leads the United States into authoritarianism, had special resonance as fascism was spreading in Europe.
Last week, as the Ledger went to press, it was once again put on by a collective of theater companies, including a Yiddish one, just days before the U.S. election. The reading, performed entirely by actors on Zoom, is available online through Nov. 1.
“It’s a call to action. We want people to participate in democracy. That’s how we prevent dictatorship from taking hold,” said Motl Didner, associate director of the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.
Folksbiene, a 105-years-old company housed at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York, joined forces with eight other companies to put on the production, which includes scenes performed in six different languages – English, Yiddish, Hebrew, Italian, Spanish and Turkish. The companies include Israeli Artists Project, Kairos Italy Theater, Repertorio Español, Turkish American Repertory Theater & Entertainment, Pan Asian Repertory Theatre, New York Classical Theatre and Playful Substance.
“That’s what America is. America is a collection of communities. it’s a collection of people from all over and it’s that American spirit that we’re trying to put forward,” Didner said.
New Heritage Theatre Group/Impact Repertory Theatre, a Black theater company based in Harlem, was also supposed to join but the group dropped out last minute due to “several personal health challenges in the company,” executive producer Voza Rivers said. The company is still marketing the performance to its supporters and Didner said Folksbiene was anticipating it would work together with the theater in the future.
Folksbiene first started thinking about putting on a production of the play last year when staff came across the 1936 Yiddish translation of the script. The original performance was part of a New Deal initiative to fund the arts that staged the play simultaneously in 17 states by 21 theater companies, including the communist-influenced Yiddish theater Artef.
The play was adapted from a novel by the same name published a year earlier by American author Sinclair Lewis. It chronicles the political rise and resistance against fictional populist demagogue Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip, who calls for a return to “traditional” values. After being elected president, Windrip starts setting up a paramilitary force, sends political dissidents to concentration camps and limits the rights of women and minorities.
Bringing together a number of companies, languages and cultures brings with it some challenges too. Since each theater company is doing one or two scenes, the actor playing each part changes eight times. And many of the companies will be performing in foreign languages. To ensure that viewers follow along, each actor’s square will be labeled with the character they are portraying and every scene will be subtitled.
Didner sees a special resonance with his theater’s Jewish heritage.
“We certainly know what the end result of dictatorship and of antisemitism and fascism are. We know that better than anybody else in the world, probably,” he said.
“But there’s also I think an inherent Jewish distaste for dictatorship. It’s inherent in the way that we historically involve more democratic processes even in the Talmud, it’s by committee and by discussion and by interpretation. It’s not one person declaring how we are to interpret the law, but it’s about building consensus. So there’s something I think inherent to the Jewish character that calls for a democratic process.”
‘Esau’ stars Shira Haas and Harvey Keitel in Israeli film based on Meir Shalev novel
By Gabe Friedman
(JTA) – The first trailer is out for “Esau,” a new movie loosely based on a biblical sibling rivalry that was filmed in Israel and boasts an all-star cast of Jewish actors.
“Esau,” a drama based on the novel by the same name by Israeli author Meir Shalev, stars Shira Haas, Harvey Keitel and Lior Ashkenazi.
The story is a modern spin of the story of Jacob and Esau. Ashkenazi, who is known to international audiences for his roles in the Israeli indie hit “Foxtrot” and alongside Richard Gere in “Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer,” stars as the protagonist, a writer who returns home to Israel to help care for his ailing father, played by Harvey Keitel. His brother, played by Mark Ivanir (you’ve seen him in “Away,” “Kajillionaire,” “Schindler’s List”), has married the woman they both loved and taken over the family’s bakery business.
Haas, who broke out in the Israeli series “Shtisel” and was nominated for an Emmy and Golden Globe for her lead role in the Netflix series “Unorthodox,” plays the young brothers’ love interest.
“Esau” will be released on streaming platforms on Dec. 1. It is directed and co-scripted by Russian filmmaker Pavel Lungin. The English-language film was produced in Israel.
“My film is a story of great love, return and merciless time. It tells us that there are things in life when time is not a great healer at all, and there are sorts of mistakes that simply shouldn’t be made,” Lungin told JTA in a statement.
Borat’ lawsuit from Holocaust survivor’s daughter is dismissed
By Gabe Friedman
(JTA) – A judge in Georgia dismissed a lawsuit by the daughter of a Holocaust survivor who appears in “Borat 2.”
Judith Dim Evans’ daughter claimed that her mother, who teaches the title character about the Holocaust in the film, was “horrified and upset” at learning after filming that Sacha Baron Cohen’s film was a comedy. Evans’ daughter sought to have the scene cut from the film, which debuted on Amazon Studios on Friday, Oct. 23.
Evans died earlier this year.
Cohen and Amazon said that Evans was clued into the film’s running gag style – which tricks unknowing people into doing things on camera – right after the scene was filmed, and that she signed a waiver form that authorized the use of her scene. Cohen devotes a large portion of his new film to mocking antisemitism and Holocaust denial. He dedicated the movie to Evans’ memory, something he has not done with any of his previous films.
“Sacha Baron Cohen was deeply grateful for the opportunity to work with Judith Dim Evans, whose compassion and courage as a Holocaust survivor has touched the hearts of millions of people who have seen the film,” an Amazon rep told Deadline. “Judith’s life is a powerful rebuke to those who deny the Holocaust, and with this film and his activism, Sacha Baron Cohen will continue his advocacy to combat Holocaust denial around the world.”
According to Deadline, Cohen and Amazon are working to share the cut footage of Evans telling her full Holocaust story “for viewers of the film to hear Evans tell the story of what happened to her family during World War II.”