Une étude sur la nature de l’identité, L’interface entre Noirs et Juifs dan les pièces de Fred Newman (The Interface Between Blacks and Jews in the Plays of Fred Newman: A Study in the Nature of Identity)
With Jeffrey Aron, trans. Bernard Phipps. Portulan :
Mémoire juive, mémoire nègre, deux figures du destin, editor Roger Toumson (Vents des Îles, 1998), pp. 193-212
by Dan Friedman and Jeffrey Aron
Fred Newman is one of a rare breed in America—a first-rate playwright whose concerns are primarily political, not psychological. His precursors can be counted on the fingers of one hand: John Howard Lawson and Mike Gold in the 1920s; Clifford Odets in the 1930s’ Arthur Miller in the 1940s and ‘50s; Amiri Baraka in the 1960s. In the 1970s and early ‘80s political plays continued to be written by playwrights attached to a few small leftist theatre companies—Steve Friedman with Modern times (New York City), Maxine Klein with the Little Flags Theatre Collective (Boston), Joan Holden with the San Francisco Mime Troupe.
While he shares with this handful of other U.S. writers a progressive social outlook, Newman differs from the rest in a number of crucial ways, not the least of which is the centrality of his concern with racism. In 12 of his 19 plays Back/white relations (which in America are more or less defined by racism) are at the center of the action.
The first full-length play Newman helped to create, A Demonstration; Common Women, the Uncommon Lives of Ordinary Woman (1986), turned on a confrontation between Black welfare mothers and white lesbian feminists. The second play he helped to put together and direct, From Gold to Platinum (1986), had as one of its major conflicts the mistrust between Black and white revolutionaries in a future Second American Revolution. Newman’s first full-length play, Mr. Hirsch Died Yesterday (1986), culminates in a struggle over identity between a white Jewish man and a Black lesbian, both of whom, inexplicably, have the same history. The first visitor Lenin receives in “history” in The Collected Emotions of V.I. Lenin (1987) is a black auto worker from Detroit, who comes to see if Lenin is really “the same color as the boss.” No Room for Zion (1989) takes Zionism to task for abandoning people of color. Billie & Malcolm: A Demonstration (1993) brings Malcolm X and Billie Holiday together in “Heaven” with other victims of American racism. While Still on the Corner (1993), Newman’s first book musical (written with composer Anne Roboff), focuses on the issue of “homelessness,” the not-so-subtle subtext of the play (as it is on the streets of New York City’s Upper West Side where the play is set) is that homeless are mostly African American and their middle class neighbors are primarily Jewish.
In Newman’s second musical, Sally and Tom (The American Way), he takes us back nearly 200 years to examine the institutions and attitudes that have shaped America’s particular form of racism. Sally and Tom explores the contradiction at the heart of the American Dream: even as Americans made one of the world’s most democratic revolutions, they preserved that most undemocratic of human institutions—slavery. Many of the most democratically-minded of America’s ‘Founding Fathers” were, like Thomas Jefferson, slave owners. Jefferson seemed to Newman (and many others) to embody the contradiction which shaped the U.S. Constitution, the early American republic, and all subsequent American history. The author of the Declaration of Independence which declared that “all men are created equal,” Jefferson was opposed to slavery in principle, yet his very wealth and privilege (and the new nation’s stability) depended on it. While he led the fight to have the first ten amendments, the Bill of Rights, added to the U.S. Constitution, thereby ensuring the freedoms of speech, press, religion, assembly, the right to a fair and speedy trial, and the right to bear arms to American citizens, he never challenged the enshrining of slavery—“the peculiar institution”—in the Constitution, a document which denied citizenship, indeed full personhood, of people of African descent.
Jefferson’s political/ethical contradictions were exacerbated (and personalized) by the apparent fact that for 30 years he lived intimately with his slave Sally Hemings, and had five children with her. Theirs was a love affair crying out for dramatization, yet aside from the Merchant-Ivory film Jefferson in Paris, which depicts the beginnings of their relationship while Jefferson was the U.S. ambassador to France, no American author had brought the story of “Sally and Tom” to the stage before.
The unresolved issue of race relations continues to be explored in various ways in Newman’s most recent woks—What Is To Be dead? (Philosophical Scenes) (1996), Coming of Age in Korea (1996), Stealin’ Home (1997), Salvador (1997) and Satchel (1998).
The centrality of the struggle against racism in Newman’s creative work as a playwright was expressed at a stormy forum in Harlem in 1991 that had been organized to address the controversy surrounding the Castillo Theatre’s first production of Newman’s Billie, Malcolm, and Yusef (a precursor of Billie and Malcolm: A Demonstration). In response to those who argued that Newman, as a white man and a Jew, shouldn’t be writing about Malcolm X, the playwright replied, “As a Jew…the issue of white supremacy, the issue of racism, the issue of the exploitation and murder of African American people, is my issue. I’ll stand here from now until the moment I drop dead insisting I must speak about it. No serious playwright in America today can work without devoting her or his creative energies to the issue of racism. If you’re not writing about that, you’re a bullshit artist—that’s the kind of artist you are.”
Newman’s Jewishness s not incidental to his concern with the fate of the Black Diaspora. His people, the Jewish working class, did not survive the holocaust in Europe as a political/cultural entity. Those who physically survived sold their political “soul” to U.S. imperialism in the form of the Israeli client-state, where the Zionists are obliged to “do unto others’ what has been done to them. Newman’s deep connection to Jewish history and a profound sense of working classness have shaped his opposition to Zionism, which in the years after World War II transformed the radical, inclusive, working class sensibility of Jewish community in America into anti-Communist “Americanism” and Zionist chauvinism. As a Jew—a descendent of the persecuted “outsiders” inside Europe-Newman feels an obligation to give all that he can, including his Jewishness, to the struggles of the African American people. As he puts it in the concluding poem of his performance piece No Room for Zion: “For people/of color/the world/over/we, communist/Jews,/offer our bodies/and minds/in your struggle./we have no soul/but we offer/our history./Please forgive/us. No/one survived/our Holocaust./Even without/soul/we must/die/trying to prevent/yours.”
The persistent concern with racism in Newman’s plays has grown out of and been shaped by his decades of work as a political organizer. Starting in 1968, when Newman, until then a philosophy professor at various U.S. colleges and universities, left the campus permanently to devote himself fulltime to radical political organizing, his overriding concern has been with reinitiating development—political, psychological, and cultural—among the American people. Without the reconstruction of a politically developed U.S. working class, he and his colleagues see no hope for the radical transformation of American society. And the key to this reconstructive process, Newman became convinced through his years of grassroots organizing, is the leadership of the African American people. Permanently relegated to the lowest rungs of the American economy and society, with the least stake in the status quo, and a heroic history of fighting for democratic and progressive reform, the African American people are, in Newman’s estimation, the most likely to provide leadership movements for radical change. Without the willingness of the white working class to follow Black leadership, there is no hope, Newman has argued, of the cultural transformation necessary for permanent change. Just as the “Jewish Question” was the cutting edge test for European revolutionaries in the first half of the century (a test, as the ovens of Auschwitz testify, they failed miserably) so the “Black Question” is the cutting edge test for U.S. revolutionaries today.
In the practical work of grassroots organizing in New York City (home to approximately 2 million African Americans and 2 million Jewish Americans) Newman immediately and repeatedly encountered the challenge of creating environments in which Blacks and Jews could work together for progressive change. The movement he has built—variously referred to as the “independent political movement” and the “development community”—has been singular in its ability to bring blacks (and other people of color) and Jews together to work for progressive change. Key to that success has been Newman’s ongoing challenge to the liberal assumptions of identity politics (constituency organizing based on societially determined interest groups ) and, eventually to the very concept of identity itself. It is in the context of this political history that the interface between Blacks and Jews in the plays of Fred Newman needs to be examined.
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?”) 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,” and 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? Its 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 the political movement he is leading. Given the premises of liberal identity politics, and given the growing polarization between Blacks and Jews in the United States in 1985, isn’t the fact that Jews are working together in the independent political movement just as hard to explain as the relationship between Marian and her mother?
In fact, Doris finally explains to her daughter, their family relationship can’t be explained by biology—or “by logic or genetics or sociology or psychology or none of that.” Something else is at work here.
“Look at it this way,” Doris goes on. “Everybody said that Blacks and Jews couldn’t work together in the same political movement, that they’d always be fighting with each other. That Blacks should work with Blacks and Jews should work with Jews. They said Jews wouldn’t follow Blacks…But they are doing it. It’s happening…We’re possible because of the power of the people. Marian, my child, you and me are more than family, we’re ORGANIZED!”
The skit was both a reflection of what was going on in the fledging development community and an attempt to explain (or more accurately, to perform) how that activity as possible. While its didactic, agit-prop ending is very different from Newman’s later work for the theatre (where he eschews explanations and lessons), its concern with the Black-Jewish interface in relation to the actualization of social change prefigures much of his subsequent dramatic writing.
At the same time, “What’s Biology Got To Do With It?” also raises questions about how we “know” anything—including who we are. Marian comes to her mother with all the preconceptions and premises common to American society about social identity embedded in American culture but her mother is determinedly, and comically, oblivious to them; Doris just doesn’t take for granted what Marian, and the audience, do about individual and group identity. While that discrepancy leads to many laughs, it also leads (or at least points) to the conservatizing nature of identity—something Newman will explore in many of his later plays.
A more somber look at the practical political implications of Black/Jewish relations (if not at the philosophical underpinning of identity) is to be fond in another early Newman work for the stage, an epic political melodrama called From Gold to Platinum that he co-authored and directed in 1986. The play was actually a collective creation involving hundreds of people then active in the development community. It grew out of discussions initiated by Newman in which he asked activists to imagine what a second American Revolution might be like. These initial discussions sparked dialogues/improvisations throughout the New York metropolitan area, the performers—welfare recipients, college professors, artists, office workers, --drawn from the diverse development community. Fourteen improvisations were eventually transcribed and reworked into a script by a team including Newman, Dan Friedman, and William Pleasant. The result was a politically heavy-handed, sprawling, nearly humorless melodrama which, with a cast numbering over 40, was performed at the Symphony Space on Manhattan’s Upper West Side in June of 1986. In October of that same year it was re-mounted at the Castillo Theatre in Lower Manhattan.
The plot of From Gold to Platinum revolved around a multi-racial group of revolutionaries, remnants of the routed revolutionary “Army of the Poor” attempting to stop the advance of the fascist “White Fathers” by blowing up a huge gasoline depot. After initial successes around the country, the Army of the Poor is disintegrating as a result of internal conflicts. As one of the characters, who acts as the play’s narrator, puts it: “Many of the old conflicts of bourgeois society—racism, sexism, homophobia—began to re-emerge under the extreme stress of the civil war situation. Lord knows it was a complex fight, but it roughly broke down into two camps. On one side were the poor and disenfranchised of the pre-revolutionary period, mostly Black…and on the other side what had been the upper strata of the U.S. working class—the unionized industrial and office workers. We were of the same class to be sure; fighting a life and death battle on the same side. But it was sometimes hard to remember that. It got so bad that discipline in the Army of the Poor broke down and we started fighting amongst ourselves.”
In the play this conflict is embodied in the struggles between Ira Weinstein, a Jewish trade unionist, and two adversaries: Betti Johnson, a Black former welfare recipient and demolition expert known as the “Bolshevik Bronx Bomber,” and Hanif Shakazulu, the son of an African Studies professor murdered by the fascists. The bitter and vicious fights enacted in From Gold to Platinum were dramatizations of fights actually going on in the independent and political cultural movement that Newman was leading. In the play, the characters find a way to overcome their antagonistic identities long enough, at least, to win the revolutionary war.
What was important about From Gold to Platinum is not the script (which is of interest as a cultural/historical artifact, not as literature) but the mass activity that created it. From Gold to Platinum, along with Common Women: The Uncommon Lives of Ordinary Women, another collectively created performance piece done at Castillo Theatre in March of that year, were the first attempts by the development community as a whole to perform (a self-reflective, developmental activity) rather than simply to “act out” its conflicts. As such, it helped to open the door to the performatory mode that has increasingly come to characterize Newman’s work in theatre, in psychology and in electoral politics.
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?” That skit, like other early plays, were directed primarily toward a core of dedicated political activists. Starting with Mr. Hirsch, however, he began to address a much wider audience. This broadening of the scope of Newman’s work for the stage was made possible and necessary by the quantitative growth of the development community in general and by the particular role that the Castillo Theatre, which Newman has served as artistic director since 1989, has played in expanding, and redefining, that community. So, while “What’s Biology Got to Do With It?” and From Gold to Platinum looked specifically at the relations between progressive/revolutionary Jews and progressive/revolutionary Blacks, since Mr. Hirsch the encounters are, for the most part, between “ordinary” (that is, non-revolutionary) Blacks and Jews.
The play Mr. Hirsch Died Yesterday grew out of a short story Newman had written nearly 30 years before about the death of a candy store owner in the working class Jewish neighborhood 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. 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 find the fact that they are “…two different people with the same history” puzzling, to Fred it’s threatening and infuriating.
He is determined to possess his history, which he believes determines his identity: “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.”
“Let go of her,” Freda responds. “We’ll both be a whole lot freer. We can have the same history and still be so wonderfully different…but not if you insist that she’s your mother. White boy, give up that mother. White boy…she’s dead.”
Newman is not denying the differences between Blacks and Jews. Those differences are the premise for the conflict in Mr. Hirsch. But what is to be done with those differences? The question posed through the confrontation in Hirsch is one that Newman will ask again and again in his dramatic, therapeutic and political work: Must we limit ourselves, by clinging to the past (history, roots, identity)? Or can we re-create ourselves through our activity?
In Still on the Corner (1993), which Newman subtitles, “A musical about those people society has labeled ‘homeless,’” there is no re-creation. In it we encounter Blacks and Jews (not to mention the “homeless” and the “middle class”) impotently stuck in their social identities. The story revolves around Cecilia, a Black woman living on the streets, who catches a break and makes it (briefly) as a pop singer and recording artist. She later sabotages her career when, in response to a question from a reporter about the “homeless,” she loses her temper during a live television broadcast. As she sings when she returns to live on the corner of Riverside Drive and 93rd Street, “Everybody tried to tell me/I was made to go somewhere/But something’ musta told me/ I had to be right here…/I thought I went away/But I never left at all.” There is no hope of development for Cecilia or her friends on the street as long as their identities are as victims at the bottom of the social hierarchy—an identity deeply rooted in the history of slavery in America.
The play’s two Jewish characters---Mrs. Rosen a radical social worker, and Mrs. Herman, a well-to-do liberal—are also stuck in their identities. They are two variations of the well-meaning middle class Jews who have achieved a certain level of economic and social security but still, on some level, feel connected to the oppressed. Although they can’t stand each other, both are clearly in pain about the poverty all around them and totally at a loss as to what to do about it. In the course of an accusatory duet they come to a grudging understanding of their common identity and impotence. Mrs. Rosen and Mrs. Herman sing: “I can feel the sadness of their pain/I’m a Jew, Mrs. Rosen/I am too Mrs. Herman./We say ‘Never Again.’/…/But what frustration./This is a nation/that will not fight this war./So we’re standin’ on the street/Before we start, already beat./ Mrs. Rosen, Mrs. Herman/What we’re chosen for?”
In Still on the Corner there is no confrontation between Blacks and Jews and no explicit challenge to the notion of identity. Blacks and Jews interact, as they do every day in the United States, but they don’t change—both groups stay in their “place,” spinning their wheels in a society that’s not going anywhere. Still on the Corner is Newman’s gloomiest play, and the gloom is directly traceable to the trap of identity in which the characters are caught.
The extension of identity to the realm of politics and the impact of identity politics on the Black and Jewish communities is directly examined in two Newman plays. In No Room for Zion (A Kaddish by a Communist Jew) (1989), which might be best described as a performed polemic, Newman explores how Zionism came to dominate Jewish politics in the wake of the Holocaust, and in Billie & Malcolm; A Demonstration(1993) he takes a crucial look at the equally understandable and equally problematic politics of Black nationalism.
No Room for Zion began as a magazine article. It first appeared in the August, 1989 issues of Stono, a journal of culture and politics published by the castillo Cultural Center. It was an analysis of the sociological, economic and political changes in the Jewish American community since the Second World War and a polemic, from left, against Zionism. The play remains a sociological analysis and a political polemic. At the same time, like Mr. Hirsch Died Yesterday, written two years earlier, No Room for Zion is a performed memoir, deeply rooted in Newman’s Bronx childhood.
In fact the old neighborhood—Jewish and working class---that is the real subject of the memoir. The neighborhood, and the community are disintegrating. The Jewish community of Newman’s youth is leaving the Bronx en mass, moving to the suburbs, climbing the ladder of American upward mobility, and, in the process, abandoning the radical, inclusionary politics of pre-revolutionary Russia and Depression-era America for post-Holocaust anti-Communist Americanism and Zionism. For Newman something precious and profound, something fundamental to Jewishness itself, has been lost in the transition.
The play is subtitled “A Kaddish by a communist Jew.” The Kaddish is the Jewish prayer for the dead. The death Newman is mourning in this performance piece is that of the Jewish community, which, he maintains, has given up the essence of its history as an oppressed people (its “soul”) in exchange for assimilation into middle class American society and the U.S. client state of Israel. The Jewish part of the bargain has been for Jews to serve as instruments of institutionalized racism.
As a character in the play puts it “…liberal Jews. Caught between a middle class assimilationist rock and a historically progressive hard place, came to see the ‘real deal’ they had made with capitalism. From the West Bank to the West Side of Manhattan, international Jewry was being forced to face its written-in-blood deal with the capitalist devil. In exchange for an unstable assimilation, Jews under the leadership of Zionism would ‘do-unto-others-what-others-had-done-to-them.’ The others to be done unto? People of color. The doing? Ghettoization and genocide. The Jew, the dirty Jew, once the ultimate victim of capitalism’s soul, fascism, would become a victimizer on behalf of capitalism, a self-righteous dehumanizer on behalf of capitalism, a self-righteous dehumanizer and murderer of people of color, a racist bigot who in the language of Zionism changed the meaning of “Never Again’ from ‘Never Again for anyone’ to ‘Never Again for us—and let the devil take everyone else.’”
Although there are no Black characters in No Room for Zion, it is very much about relations between Blacks and Jews. Zionism, the play/polemic argues, has betrayed progressive Jewish history, for it demands that Jews abandon other oppressed peoples, in particular people of color—Palestinians in the Near East and African Americans in the United States—in the name of Jewish identity. According to Newman, Zionism is, among other things, “a political weapon, a gun for hire pointed at those Jews who did not conform, and would not disdain, despise, and decimate people of color in the name of our Holocaust.”
No Room for Zion was, in addition to being a play, a public declaration by Newman the political leader as to where he, and the Jews who followed him, stood on the question of Black-Jewish relations. The stand has provoked vicious attacks from the Zionist establishment, which has labeled him as a “self-hating Jew.” Newman’s response to this accusation has been: “If the choice is between being a ‘self-hating Jew’ and hating people of color, I choose ‘self-hating.’” All of Newman’s efforts, politically and culturally, are concerned with creating something other than these two “choices.” Beyond its practical political implications, No Room for Zion is also a challenge to the self-defeating paradox of identity politics. For given the power of relations in the United States (and in the world), for oppressed people identity politics can only mean petitioning/pressuring those in power in the presumed interests of your people at the expense of others.
Newman’s challenge to identity politics has not been limited to the Jewish community; he has not hesitated to challenge those in the Black community who (like the Zionists in the Jewish community) have used (Black) identity to make their deal with the status quo. In Billie and Malcolm; A Demonstration (1994), we find ourselves in Heaven where Malcolm X, 30 years dead, is explaining to Billie Holiday and Walter, a Black teenager murdered by a white cop in the 1990s, the particular pain that comes with being killed by your own people.
“I threatened not the masses of our people who loved me then and love me still, but those who opportunize off of the needs and weaknesses of our people; who do the white man’s job by keeping our people liars and pimps—even though they preach against lying and pimping—because they themselves are models of successful liars and pimps. And when I refused to stay imprisoned, those who had the most to lose from my close ties to the masses of our people—the white pigs always looking after their racist, white, supremacist system—the FBI, the CIA—and the rich Black pimps got together and murdered me that cold February day at the Audubon.”
Newman (through the dead “Malcolm”) shows no mercy for the Black nationalists, whether of the cultural kind (those who have, since the 1970s, piggy backed off of Black Power movement into cushy academic jobs), the political variety (who play their “Black card” to wheel and deal within America’s Democratic Party), or the religious version (who use the Koran as a stepping stone to economic gain and political “clout’ within American society).
Malcolm continues, “…the Black man who would benefit and pimp off our pain…who would prefer we remain enslaved if he may love off of our destitution; the murderer who would murder his own people for a price and the hypocrite who would justify this pimping with self-righteous rhetoric—he must be strung up alongside the white supremacist murderers for he is no different than they are.”
In Still on the Corner the identity of the homeless African American characters is that of victims, while the identity of the Jews is characterized by impotence and guilt. At first glance these seem very different from the apparently positive identities of Jewish and Black nationalism as shown/critiqued in No Room for Zion and Billie and Malcolm: A Demonstration. Yet in all three cases it is not the particulars of this or that identity that is shown to be problematic, it is identity itself. Identity, Newman’s plays tell us repeatedly, is only one of the many ways in which we might describe or explain ourselves in the world. It is a way of understanding that obscures the more essential (or, more precisely, the more developmental) domain of connection.
This critique of identity is articulated most explicitly in Outing Wittgenstein (1994). Here we find Newman’s views on identity expressed through the character of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, whose work (in “real” life) on categorization, in particular, the notion of “family resemblances” laid much of the philosophical groundwork for Newman’s subsequent thinking on identity. Outing Wittgenstein is not specifically about Black or Jewish identity, rather it was written as a challenge to gay identity—and that challenge provides Newman with the opportunity to question all identity. After all, “gay” identity, a relatively new invention, is perhaps easier to expose as a social construct than is race or ethnicity.
In the first act of this wild farce, Wittgenstein is brought back to life for the “This Is Your Death” television show, where he is encouraged to recognize and acknowledge his gay alter ego. (Wittgenstein, who was ruthlessly honest in his intellectual life, was a closeted homosexual.) In the second act, the previous night’s television show precipitates a series of crises in (sexual) identity among a multi-racial group of working and middle class New Yorkers. These crises are only fully resolved when the two Wittgensteins (Wittgenstein and his Alter Ego) land a flying saucer in Manhattan’s Central Park and reveal they are really from the distant planet of Wittgenstein, where no one has an identity, and therefore “everyone is gay.”
The two Wittgensteins go on to explain to the baffled Earthlings that “Gayness to us on planet Wittgenstein doesn’t mean sex with the same sex—it means sex without definition. There is no ‘opposite’ sex. Therefore there is no ‘same’ sex. And when you take away ‘opposite’ and ‘same’ then sex is quite a different matter. It’s rather like the idea of ‘family resemblances’ that we talk about in the Philosophical Investigations. There are ‘sexual resemblances’—not definite sexes. Surely some people are biologically identifiable as women and others as men. But why should we identify ourselves—biologically or otherwise? Identity is such a vulgar Earth-like idea.”
“How do you know who anyone is?” one of the Earthlings wants to know.
“Well, presumably our so-called identities are based on who we are,” replies Wittgenstein. “So we must have a capacity to know who we are logically and historically prior to having identities. It’s like any code. You have to know what something means before you encode it. Now some codes have positive value. Identity…has none.”
An African American character asks, “So, then, Mr. Wittgenstein, I wouldn’t be Black?”
“Well, you are Black,” responds Wittgenstein. “You simply wouldn’t be identified as Black.”
“It’s kind of like everyone is the same,” ventures a third character.
“Oh no, dear boy. It’s rather like everyone’s different. It’s those categories of identity which makes everyone the same.”
It is also those categories of identity, Newman maintains, which make everyone conservative. In Newman’s plays identity, whether individual or group, is backward looking and static, concerned with what has been done to us rather than with what we could be doing.
Newman returns to the conservatizing aspect of identity in relation to Blacks and Jews and their interaction with What is to be Dead? (Philosophical Scenes) (1996). As in Mr. Hirsch Died Yesterday, written 10 years earlier, in What is to Be Dead? Newman uses African American and Jewish characters to investigate the philosophical and political implications of identity. 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 conservations 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 the late 20th century Harlem, U.S.A. As the play progresses, these conversations, stories, and characters are distinct characters at all.
While this overarching structure is itself the play’s most profound 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 somewhat 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 What is to Be Dead? or Outing Wittgenstein, or 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 determined by the past. 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. The play ends with them dancing together, “slowly and sexually,” as the lights fade.
That scene is emblematic of Newman’s views on the Black-Jewish interface. Newman’s approach to politics and culture has always been relational and activistic, not, as with the traditional left, identity-based and ideological. Dancing is a useful, if somewhat inadequate, metaphor for what Newman has spent the better part of his life attempting to create. The developmental community, of which his plays are a part, is something of a dance with no predetermined steps. It is a historical, relational activity being improvised by a wide range of “different” peoples. Dancing is, after all, a relational, not an identity-based, activity. Its development doesn’t depend on who the dancers are, it depends on what the dancers are doing. At its most creative, dancing is an activity in which the dancers create something new and distinct from themselves—they create the dance.
In The End of Knowing that, Newman and his co-author, Holzman write: “…talk of ‘we’ rather than ‘you’ and ‘I’ will, in our opinion, have little or no impact so long as ‘we’ means ‘you and I,’ so long as we do not activistically change the meaning of ‘you and I.’
The new meaning to be found in the historic interface of African Americans and Jewish Americans does not deny or negate the history of either. But neither does it calcify their histories into “identity.” The specifics of those histories, Newman maintains, are extremely important, not just to Blacks and Jews themselves, but to the future of the world. Jewish Americans, the persecuted outcasts of Europe’s now dying civilization, can, and to some extent, have (both in America in the 20th century and in the development community over the last 20 years) been the bearers of what is most valuable in the modernist, European legacy—Marxism. The African American people, on the other hand, are vital to the creation of what is new and distinct and developmental about America. They are America’s cultural and political dynamo. If America is to live up to what Newman sees as its potential as a bridge to a new, postmodern, non-Eurocentric, nonwhite-defined civilization, the “dance” between Blacks and Jews is of vast importance.