Blacks and Jews: Embodiment of the Other in the Plays of Fred Newman

Unpublished talk, Association for Theatre in Higher Education, Toronto, Canada, July 31, 2004.

Blacks and Jews: Embodiment of the Other in the Plays of Fred Newman
By Dan Friedman
Castillo Theatre

 

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   At the Castillo Theatre, a twenty-year-old experimental theatre where I am dramaturg and Youth Onstage!, its youth theatre where I serve as artistic director, we approach embodiment as a relational activity.

   For us embodiment is neither a mystical nor an intrapsychic phenomenon. It is, for us, not a subjective state. It is not something one can do oneself. Embodiment requires the Other. It does not, as far as we are concerned, come from within; it emerges from and is an expression of between. To embody the Other one must be in a relationship with the Other.   

   That relationship need not be an equal or friendly one. In the 19th century Minstrel Show, whites represented African Americans on stage in a mocking and degrading manner. At the same time, Blacks were forbidden altogether from representing, or performing, as whites, be it on stage or off.  The first African American theatre, the African Company, founded in 1821 in New York City, lasted all of two years before the outdoor tea garden where it performed was burned to the ground for daring to allow Blacks to perform in roles originally intended for whites. Ira Alrigdge, America’s first great Black actor, had to move to England in order to be allowed on the stage. In fact, representing, performing, embodying, the Other in public has been and remains an exercise of power.

   Yet whatever the balance of power between the performer and the performed, there must be a relationship to give meaning to the embodiment. At the same time, obviously, there can be relationships in which embodiment does not take place.  Of what does the embodiment consist?

   Embodiment, for Castillo and Youth Onstage!, involves a transgression of borders, a bending of identities, and is therefore, from our perspective, both a postmodern and a political activity. For whatever the intention of the performer, embodiment is an affirmation of the fluidity of human social experience. To embody the Other you must, by necessity, leave the boundaries of yourself or your group and in so doing you challenge, knowingly or not, the assumptive immutability of identity. If I can embody you and you can embody me, then what exactly is the difference between you and me? Of what do the differences between your group and mine consist? What exactly is the self? In performing the distinctions between us we demonstrate that the distinctions are, indeed, performances.

   Thus, embodiment, for us, is not a “possession” or “penetration” as it is often referred to in anthropological and performance studies literature. It is not one totality taking over or filling or becoming the Other; it is, in our view, a deconstructive activity. We share with Brecht and his postmodern descendants the belief that the performer is at all times both who s/he is and who s/he is not, that is, who s/he is becoming. Embodiment, as Castillo and Youth Onstage! practice it, is an activity through which identity is deconstructed and then playfully reconstructed, thereby exposing identity as a social construct.

   One particular relationship that has long concerned Castillo and Youth Onstage! is the one between Blacks and Jews in America.

   The founders of Castillo met in the early 1980s while working with groups such as the New York City Unemployed and Welfare Council, the Coalition of Grassroots Women and the leftist New Alliance Party. As community organizers on the ground, most of whom were either Black or Jewish, we were challenged by both the affinities and the tensions between the city’s Black and Jewish communities and driven by the potential value of the two communities finding ways to work together.  The relationship between Blacks and Jews has, in this way, been as crucial to our community organizing and to the building of our theatre as it has been to New York’s political and cultural life over the last 100 years.

Of the 110 plays produced by Castillo and Youth Onstage! over the last two decades, in about two-thirds of them racism and race relations are a major theme, of the 30 plays of Fred Newman, Castillo’s artistic director and playwright-in-residence, seven have directly involved Black-Jewish relations.  Here I want to take a quick look at four of Newman’s plays relative to embodiment of the Other by Black and Jewish performers on the stages of the Castillo Theatre and Youth Onstage!

 

What’s Biology Got To Do With It?

   Fred Newman grew up poor and Jewish in the Bronx, went on to college on the G.I. Bill, winding up with a doctorate in the philosophy of science and the foundations of mathematics from Stanford University.  After about a decade in academia, Newman left the campus for full time political organizing in 1968. By the end of the 70s he had become the leader of a progressive political movement that was rooted in Marx’s methodology while having significant reservations about Marx’s work as a political scientist.  The movement Newman lead placed particular emphasis on the subjective element in the process of social change, engaging both establishment psychology and launching a number of cultural projects, including the Castillo Theatre.

   Newman’s first extant piece for the theatre is a short, comic skit called “What’s Biology Got To Do With It?” (The title is a play on rock star Tina Turner’s hit song, “What’s Love Got To Do With It?” which was popular at the time.) Written in 1985 for a comedy revue at the Castillo Theatre, the skit directly tackles both the question of Black/Jewish relations and the nature of identity. Its comic (and philosophical) premise is that “Marian,” a white Jewish teenage girl, comes to her mother “Doris,” an African American woman, with a problem: “How did I turn out Jewish if you’re Black?”

   Doris’ initial response is: “What am I, a genius? Who knows? It’s just one of those things. How come Julius Erving can dunk from the foul line? How come Aunt Wilma always wins at poker?” Not surprisingly, Marian doesn’t find this helpful; the other kids at school are taunting her: “You’re biologically impossible, you’re biologically impossible!”

   The comic implications—which Newman takes full advantage of—are obvious. But beyond the one-liners, Newman is raising a serious question for and about political movements. Given the premises of liberal identity politics, which by 1985 meant Blacks, Jews, Latinos, gays, and so on vying for influence within the Democratic Party, isn’t the fact that the Blacks and Jews of this particular political movement outside the confines of the two parties were doing something other that competing just as hard to explain as the relationship between Marian and her mother?

   The skit was both a reflection of what was going on in the fledging political movement of which Castillo was a part and an attempt to explain (or more accurately, to perform) how that activity was possible.

   Perhaps by conventional definition, no embodiment took place in the performance of “What’s Biology Got To Do With It?” The Mother, Doris, was played by Doris Kelly, a middle-aged African American nurse and the daughter, Marian, was played by a young Jewish woman, Marian Rich. Yet the deconstruction that characterizes embodiment was already at work.  Doris, though Black, uses Yiddishisms throughout the script, speaks with a Jewish rhythm and alternates between Jewish and Black cultural references at every turn. Boundaries are being crossed even in this early skit. The very fact that Doris’ “Black” body had produced Marian’s “Jewish” body and culture prefigures the challenge to identity that Newman’s work has become know for.

 

Mr. Hirsch Died Yesterday

   Newman’s first full-length play, Mr. Hirsh Died Yesterday, first produced at the Castillo Theatre under his direction in 1987, explores in far more depth the issues touched upon in “What’s Biology Got To Do With It?” The play developed from a short story Newman had written nearly 30 years before about the death of a candy store owner in the working class Jewish neighborhood near Yankee Stadium in the Bronx where he grew up. The stage version begins with the character Fred (played by the author in the original production) reading the story directly to the audience.

   The same story is then enacted by a cast of characters, except that the gender and race of some of the key characters have been changed. Most significantly, the Jewish boy Fred of the story has become the girl Freda, an African American, on stage. Thus the physical embodiment of the Other on the Castillo stage begins.

   The third part of the play consists of a confrontation between the original Fred (Jewish, a man, straight, and middle-aged) and the grown-up Freda (Black, a woman, lesbian, and young). The two run into each other in an undefined place—it may be Fred’s kitchen, it may be history, it’s probably both—and discover that they grew up in the same neighborhood, hung out at the same candy store, played with the same friends, and had the same mother. While Freda finds the fact that they are “…two different people with the same history” merely puzzling, to Fred it’s threatening and infuriating.

   He is determined to possess his history, which he believes determines who he is: “it’s my history, goddamnit. It’s mine. I need it. It’s mine. She’s my mother and she ties me to my roots…ugly, miserable, insane…but mine…my roots. She’s my mother.”

   Rooted in the past and committed to his identity, Fred finds embodiment of the Other (or, more to the point, the Other’s embodiment of him) to be a threat.  Freda, who is coming-into-being finds it much easier to live with the contradictions that embodiment brings with it.

    After Mr. Hirsch Died Yesterday, the embodiment of the Other returned to the Castillo stage over and over again. For the purposes of this talk, I want to touch on just two other productions, both of which deal with Black-Jewish relations.

 

What Is To Be Dead?

   In What is to be Dead? (Philosophical Scenes) (1996), as in Mr. Hirsch Died Yesterday, written 10 years earlier, Newman uses African American and Jewish characters to investigate the philosophical and political implications of identity, and to explore the non-cognitive understanding that can come through the experience of performatory embodiment.

   As its subtitle implies, What is to Be Dead? is both a series of philosophical dialogues and a play exploring a number of complexly interrelated relationships. The conversations between Rivin, a dissipated nihilist, and his Bolshevik sister Sprintze in late 19th century Russia are juxtaposed with conversations between Sam, a gay African American street person dying of AIDS, and his Black nationalist sister Pearlie (who has taken the African name Takuma) in late 20th century Harlem, U.S.A. As the play progresses, these conversations, stories, and characters progressively lose their distinctions, separations, boundaries, and identities.

   While this overarching structure is itself a questioning of the assumptions embedded in identity, the individual scenes, each of which explores a particular philosophical question while at the same time moving the story forward, provide us with some of Newman’s most telling dialogue on the meanings and implications of identity to Blacks and Jews.

   Responding to Sam’s teasing about her newly adopted African name, Pearlie/Takuma explains, “Listen, Sam, I’m just trying to be who I really am…an African woman.”

    “Now, how come you work so hard at tryin’ to be who you really is?” Sam asks. “And why are you so damned proud to be who you simply is? I’d think it would make more sense to be proud of who in hell you aren’t. Y’Know. What you made of yourself.”

   But what Pearlie/Takuma (or any of us) is making of herself is unknown (since it is in process), and the unknown does not offer the comfort of (knowable) identity. “For those of us still livin’ ya gotta decide who y’are. And I’m an African…Takuma, an African woman,” his sister tells him. “Y’know Sam, in a certain way I almost agree with you. I mean if ya look forward sometimes there ain’t nothin’ to see but death. So I choose to look backward where I come from—and I come from Africa, Sam. I come from Africa. We all eventually go back to earth, Sam. So it’s where we come from that counts.”

   In a parallel conversation between Rivin and Hinda, a friend of his sister and a member of the Jewish Socialist Bund (a socialist/nationalist formation in Czarist Russia) who is played by the same actress who plays Pearlie/Takuma, Rivin asks, “Why are you still a Jew? What does it mean that you are a Jew?”

   “It’s where I come from, Rivin,” replies Hinda. “Without it, I mean nothing. My hopes are for the future. But me, the one who hopes, comes from the past. And it is my Jewish past, a Jewish history. Without it, I am like you; nothing.”

   “And so you use being a Jew to keep you from seeing that you are nothing?”

   Sam tells Pearlie/Takuma basically the same thing: “I ain’t got no identity, baby. I don’t want no identity. This is a kinda freedom I got now, Pearlie.”

   What do Rivin and Sam do with the “freedom” afforded them by their lack of identity? Newman purposefully leaves that question unanswered. A lack of identity is not presented in any of Newman’s plays as a goal or end in itself. Leaving identity behind simply allows for the possibility of creating new types of relationships, relationships not predetermined by existing social categories or dictated by the past. That is, it allows for the transgression of boundaries, it allows for embodiment.

   In the middle of the play the actress playing Sprintze, Ravin’s sister, appears in Harlem as Mrs. Golub, Sam’s social worker.  By the end of the play it is revealed that Pearlie (who is also Hinda) and Sprintze (who is also Mrs. Golub) have been lesbian lovers since 1896.  The boundaries between ethic groups, between nation states, between individual identities, even between the dead and the living are all challenged.

   In the final scene of What is to Be Dead? Rivin and Sam meet in what is presumably a contemporary gay bar. Separated by ethnicity and a hundred years, they find a way to talk to each other; in fact, as the lights fade with them dancing “slowly and sexually,” it is no longer clear if they are even two different people.

 

Crown Heights

   In Crown Heights, originally written by Newman and myself in 1998, conflict between Blacks and Jews is the explicit subject, and the embodiment of the performance stands in sharp contrast to the dicodimizations of the script.  It was produced twice, first in 1998 and then again this year, as the first production of Youth Onstage!  It was also the first production in our new arts and educational complex on West 42nd Street in New York City’s commercial theatre district, it is this second production in which embodiment played a significant role.

   Crown Heights is a fictional look at the violence between Blacks and Jews that took place in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Crown Heights in 1991.  Hassidic Jews and African Americans and Afro-Caribbeans had lived together in the same neighborhood since the 1940s, but had never shared a community.

   The violence between Blacks and Jews in Brooklyn was never really resolved. Politicians on both side of the ethnic divide fueled the flames of anger and resentment. In fact, Rudolf Guiliani, running for mayor the next year, made it a major campaign issue, accusing Mayor David Dinkins, New York City’s first, and so far only, African American mayor, of failing to send enough police to Crown Heights to “protect the Jews.”  Guiliani, a Republican, got 70% of the Jewish vote, which is usually heavily Democratic.  It was enough to give him the margin of his victory over Dinkins in a close race.

   So producing a play about Crown Heights on 42nd Street, in New York City’s commercial theatre district, was like pointing out a wound or a scar that everyone was pretending didn’t exist. The script was critical of both the Jewish community, for leaving the scene of the accident that sparked the violence, and of the Black community for so quickly resorting to violence in response to perceived grievances. Both critiques were articulated by characters who were thoughtful young men challenging the prevailing attitudes within their communities.  Each community was embodied by a chorus, which sang as well as spoke in unison.

   There were 15 newspaper articles, reviews and one outraged editorial written about our production, along with three television spots. Some loved it, others hated it, no one was indifferent. Most of the Jewish press and right wing papers such as Rudolph Murdock’s New York Post were particularly outraged by the play’s challenge to the official position of the city’s Jewish leadership that the violence was an unprovoked pogrom. The production got the larger New York community talking about the uncomfortable issue of race relations in a city that prides itself on its tolerance.

   While the content of the script was controversial, in retrospect, I think the provocation was intensified by the fact that the cast was made up of Black, Jewish and Latino teenagers and by the fact that we had some Jewish teenagers playing Blacks and some African Americans and Latinos playing Jews.

   As the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, put it: “Standing in the Hassidic Jewish Chorus are black and Hispanic teenage girls in black suits and shoes. Curls of false hair hand down in front of their ears, and their real is tucked up under black hats.  Across the stage, the actors in the Black Chorus are not just black, but also white, Puerto Rican and Jewish.”

   The Grande Rebbe was played by a sixteen-year old Puerto Rican girl.  One of the Black male characters, who winds up stabbing the character of the rabbinical student was blond-haired. The deconstruction of identity was evident in the contrast between the audience’s preconceived notions about the physicality of the characters and the actors who were actually performing those characters. While none of the critics attacked these casting choices directly, it obviously made them uncomfortable.  Their working assumption, that one community was “right” and one was “wrong,” one the victimizer and the other victim, was challenged not only by the play’s narrative, but also by the purposeful deconstruction/reconstruction of ethnic identities on stage.

   The actors, who ranged in age from 14 to 23, worked hard during the five-month rehearsal period, to learn the history, culture and physicality of the Other.

   “When I was cast as a Black person at first I was worried,” said Lindsay Meyerowitz, a 14-year-old Jewish actress from River Vale, New Jersey, at a press conference held to respond to the play’s critics at the end of its run. “Even though I was raised to not be prejudiced, I really didn’t know what Black people felt like, how they saw the world; I didn’t have a strong sense of what they go through. I wasn’t sure I could do it, but by being in the Black Chorus and working on the play from the Black community’s point of view I got of a sense of what their pain is about, why they are angry. I was also working with Black actors and learned from them, and the Black actors who were in the Jewish Chorus learned from me as well. I taught them the Mourner’s Kaddish and helped them understand something about Jewish culture.”

   “Before this play, like many in my community, I thought the riots in Crown Heights were just the Jews’ fault,” said Mary Holder, a 16-year-old African American actress from Carnarsie, Brooklyn at the same press conference. “But Crown Heights gave me the opportunity to learn about and understand the feelings of the Hassidic community, to see the events through their eyes and through their history…It’s different than anything I’ve ever done before and different than what most actors get to do, but it’s a great experience. I got to do something many people never get to do and that is to literally step into someone else’s shoes, to learn what they think, to discover what they feel, to understand their perspective on things.”

   Mary was right; what she did is “different than what most actors get to do.”  That embodiment experience, relational in both its origin and realization, is an important part of what we mean when we call Castillo and Youth Onstage! “postmodern political theatres.”  The politics is located not as much in the content of the scripts as in the relational activity of embodiment.

   If, as I proposed at the beginning of this talk, embodiment of the Other in public is an exercise of power, then the young actors who created Crown Heights exercised significant power, and that is how the young people involved in the production perceived what they did. As Nichole Quinones, a 14-year-old Dominican-American girl from Washington Heights expressed it: “I enjoyed all the press, good and bad. The good obviously because it praised our work and it showed that all our hard work paid off.  I also enjoyed the bad press because, although we were being put down, it showed that we were doing something worth writing about…When you come to see Crown Heights you see teenagers creating something positive and something that is impacting on the city. We are all volunteers and we have stuck through this production to the end. We have given a whole new look to who we are and who we can be.”

   “A whole new look to who we can be,” is only possible if the we is understood in relation to the Other. That engagement, in Crown Heights, resulted not simply in a unique theatrical experience, but an experience in which embodiment moved beyond the stage to impact on the daily lives of those involved.

 

1 Wittke, Carl R. Tambo and Bones: A History of the American Minstrel Stage. Durham, NC, 1930.

2 Peterson, Bernard L., Jr. Profiles of African American Stage Performers and Theatre People, 1816-1960. Westport, CT, 2001.

3  

4 For more on the production history of Castillo, see Friedman, Dan (ed.), Still on the Corner and Other Postmodern Political Plays by Fred Newman. (Castillo: New York, 1998).

5 Explanation, knowing and cognition has never been a significant part of Castillo’s approach to theatre.  In fact Newman is co-author of a book that argues that knowledge as understood in Western culture has reached its developmental limits.  See: Newman, Fred and Holzman, Lois. The End of Knowing: A new developmental way of learning. (Routledge: London and New York, 1998).

6 Quotes from Mr. Hirsch Died Yesterday and What Is To Be Dead? From published versions of the plays in Still on the Corner.

7 Ranger, Abby. “Youth Theatrte, ‘Crown Heights,’ Seeks to Soothe Racial Tensions,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, (January 26, 2004).

8 Both the Meyerowitz and Holder quotes from press conference held at the All Stars Project’s arts and education complex at 543 W. 42nd Street, New York City on March 7, 2004.

9 Ibid.