Friday, May 04, 2018


• Kokandy Productions • Director, John D. Glover • Musical Direction, Aaron Benham • Choreography, Brenda Didier
at Theater Wit through May 27 1229 W Belmont, Chicago 60657 | 773-975-8150

Weimar Berlin, memories of WWI and doing everything to forget it, old money and the rise of capitalism, the “divine decadence" of new sexual possibilities, - this is what "Grand Hotel" at Theater Wit by Kokandy Productions sets out to depict. And are we in for a spectacle! I have never seen so many dancers and singers of such wonderful calibre on the small stage on theater one at Theater Wit. Director John D. Glover with Aaron Benham as Musical Director and Brenda Didier as Choreographer, pulls out all the stops in this incredibly well-staged musical. This is the musical to see before seeing Kander and Ebb’s "Cabaret.” 

(front center) Jonathan Schwart (Otto Kringelein) with the cast of Kokandy Productions' GRAND HOTEL. Photo by Evan Hanover.
All the same characters are here. We have nobility and the artistry of great dancers and wonderful singers. We have romance and sexual dalliances. Even one of the residents of "Grand Hotel” is Otto Kringelein (Jonathan Schwart), a Jewish bookkeeper, who, though strings had to be pulled for him to stay there due to anti-Semitism, winds up living wonderfully - loving life as he has never done before.

And this can be said for so many of the others, even with their pretensions and poshness, their fake love and their social climbing, their loss of money in capitalist deal-making and the ever increasing "dancing and singing” towards the depression that will ruin them all, ushering in the fascistic grand bargain with Hitler. 

We have hints of this inclement fall when the workers of the hotel come marching in and out at different moments, rattling their metal dishes and showing how they are mistreated by the residents and continue to be the low-lifes of society. But mostly the plot makes itself known slowly through the story of a Baron (Erik Dohner) who has lost all his money, yet lives the good life by sponging off rich women. But his humanity comes through and he must deal with the love he has for one woman and the anti-Semitism that is leveled against Otto Kringelein. 

(left to right) Travis Austin WrightLeryn Turlington (Flaemmchen) and Darren Patin in Kokandy Productions' GRAND HOTEL. Photo by Evan Hanover.
Flaemmchen (Leyren Turlignton) a typist, who works to make her way up the social and economic ladder, is then sexually harassed where male power can also be seen foreshadowing the authoritarianism that is coming to Germany. Certainly sexual harassment today by those in power -- on up to those at the top of the U.S. government -- can be seen through this lens on history.

My one criticism, still leaving the show eminently to be seen — is that the arc of the production should have led us more clearly to what Germany was to become, more like the tawdry and decadent world of "Cabaret.” There is a reason Vicki Baum, the original author of the novel "Menschen im Hotel” upon which the play and musical was based, had Otto Kringelein the Jew, in the show. Baum, a Viennese Jew was writing about the great economic depression that was about to come in 1929 (the play takes place in 1928) and it was blamed on the Jews. Jews were also blamed for why Germany lost WWI, as the capitalists of the world, and as the communists who supported mistreated workers. 

(front, l to r) Nick ArceoJeff Pierpoint and Maurice Randle (second row, l to r) Jenny McPhersonHanah Rose NardoneDaniel HurstJennifer Ledesma and Darren Patin (back, l to r) Aaron BenhamElena Spiegel and Parker Guidry in Kokandy Productions' GRAND HOTEL. Photo by Evan Hanover.
Jews were seen as vermin, eating away at German society, creating secret cabals, and infiltrating the "grand hotel” of Germany - a world about to explode into racial hatred. More of this should have been at the edges of what, in so many other ways, was a wonderful show.

Tuesday, June 06, 2017


May 24 - July 2, 2017
Writers Theatre 
325 Tudor Court 
Glencoe, IL.
Photos by Michael Brosilow

Cast of Parade in cakewalk style
It is interesting to view PARADE in our times, about Leo Frank a Jew, who was accused of rape and murder in 1913 in Atlanta, and then lynched due to the extreme anti-Semitism of the times. Today in America we are asking many of the same questions that were asked in order to contextualize his guilt or innocence like: Do we value freedom, democracy, and the rights of “outsiders” even if we don’t like them or trust them? How is America "made great again"? Is race a part of the fabric of this country? What role do Jews play in America as Americans and as Jews? 

At this time period in the early 1900s, Jews were seen not only as different from the white Christian majority of Americans, but were also perceived to be socially, politically, morally, and even racially dangerous. Henry Ford, the car manufacturer, was writing hate essays about international Jewish conspiracies and blamed WWI on Jews. The Dreyfus case in France in the late 1800s was a world-wide publicized scandal about military officer Alfred Dreyfus, who had been found guilty of spying and sent to prison on Devils Island - chosen due to his Jewish heritage. 
Jake Nicholson as Frankie Epps; Caroline Heffernan as Mary Phagan

Then in 1913 Leo Frank, a Jew from Brooklyn, New York, and the business manager of a pencil factory in Atlanta, was found guilty of the rape and murder of 13 year old employee Mary Phagan. After multiple appeals of his case, potentially leading to a Supreme Court hearing, he was abducted from jail and lynched by a mob of vigilantes.

Despite the racism of Jim Crow South, and the inclinations of the public to assume African-American guilt in these kinds of events, the play quickly establishes that Frank is seen by the populace and the authorities as Phagan's rapist and killer. It shows the multiple resentments towards Frank being from the North and Brooklyn (“Jewish elitist"). He stands out in that community while his wife, from a Southern Jewish family, has learned to fit in. The play further shows the lack of workers' rights and child labor laws that exploited them and paid low wages. 

But then the musical, in its tableaux theatrical style, shows that Mary Phagan was made into a Christian martyr and that the community believed she was killed by a Jew because of the demonic stereotypes believed about Jews. Frank was depicted in newspapers as physically grotesque and these anti-Semitic caricatures were referenced in the court hearings. 

A strong prejudicial belief was spread that Frank had an insatiable sexual appetite and that he enlisted African-American workers in the plant to enable his sexual needs by guarding the doors while he enticed the girls who toiled under the harsh conditions of the plant. The girls testified against him, but do so as though brainwashed to speak the “truth” the prosecuting attorney wanted them to say against this so-called “outsider” Jew.

The Franks fought for their rights, using the democratic processes that they had available to them, through appeals and further trials - gathering new evidence and demanding facts, in opposition to the emotional rants by the Christian newspaper editor who saw Jews as inherently evil for the killing of Jesus their Savior. 

Clearly the play is opposed to Christian fundamentalist beliefs that breed hate towards Jews. But the driving force of the music and the Southern gospel sounds work both to emphasize hate bred by fanaticism and at the same time the music provides an empathy for characters that were spreading hate. 

It was disconcerting to hear wild applause after a musical number depicting, in preacher-style, anti-Semitism towards Leo Frank. Another case was when the African-American worker Jim Conley, who is used to either frame Frank or may even have been the rapist/murderer (according to most historians of the case), sings a song while on the chain gang and forcefully confronts the governor who is gathering new evidence. He sings in a provocatively grotesque manner that evokes horror. Yet the number was once again wildly applauded despite its dark message. 

I'm not sure what can be done, since the style of the show is confrontational and works to disrupt the usual "feel good" style of musicals. The directing possibly could have been more clear that these songs were not meant for applause but were meant to depict the makings of an atrocity.

Jonathan Butler-Duplessis as Jim Conley
The cast works hard to get beyond these dichotomies. The deeply felt performance by Patrick Andrews, as Leo Frank, is a multi-dimensional portrayal of a man who is fallible, arrogant, and sets himself apart from the Atlanta community. His arc through the play is about one who learns about his own struggle to be a man, a husband, and a Jew - one who is suffering an injustice of epic proportions. 

The character of Jim Conley, the African-American who testifies against Frank, played by actor Jonathan Butler-Duplessis, is a tour-de-force. His song near the end of the play is both horrific and touching as he depicts the plight of being Black in America. 

Brianna Borger, who plays Lucy Frank, who persists in seeking evidence to clear her husband’s name, is both an anchor in seeking justice and a source of authentic faith in a time and place that uses religion as an excuse to cry “let’s make America and the South great again” to justify prejudice and hatred.

Patrick Andrews as Leo Frank; Brianna Borger as Lucy Frank
The times that we now find ourselves, in an age where “nativists” are seen as the real Americans, as opposed to “internationalists” who want to open borders and let in outsiders who may rape our women and take jobs away, is chillingly mirrored by this show. Consequently this Writers Theatre production speaks with resonances that weren't recognized in the original production in 1997. Alfred Uhry ("Driving Miss Daisy”) and composer Jason Robert Brown ("The Last Five Years”; “The Bridges of Madison County") have created a work that speaks more strongly today than when it first premiered. 

Being an American today is a challenge. Are we the patriotic Americans who long for a view of history that is romanticized and nostalgic or are those of us who support immigrants the real danger to our country?

And being an American Jew today is also deeply difficult. Do we blend in as Americans and become inauthentic to our culture, ethics, and beliefs? Or do we only accept one kind of expression of what it means to be a Jew?

Patrick Andrews as Leo Frank
This story is a compelling witness to the history of the “outsider,” who is used as an excuse to stoke fear and hate. As a result the desire to blend in is stronger. Near the play's inevitable conclusion, Leo and Lucy have a “picnic" in his jail cell and sing the gorgeous duet “All The Wasted Time” which speaks to their personal story. But this song is also a metaphor for the fear, prejudice, hate and injustice that monopolize our time. The song is really a prayer that the time we have hear on earth should be filled with love, fairness, and a faith - Jewish or otherwise - that doesn’t breed hate. 

And at the end of the play Leo Frank declares the Shema, which is the statement of the Jewish creed that God is one for all peoples and that all have equal worth in God's sight. Then like so many others before, who died al ha-Kiddush HaShem - for the sanctification of God’s name, he bears fatal witness to that belief.

Thursday, May 26, 2016


I went to see the current production of A SPLINTERED SOUL by Alan Lester Brooks at Stage 773 at the end of its run (closing May 29). It has already been reviewed so I won't cover that terrain. What I'd like to think about is what are the uses of the Holocaust, and when does it become just another way to provide entertainment or even be misappropriated for other agendas?

Saul Friedlander, the Holocaust historian and survivor, talks about Holocaust regarding popular culture and the thrust of his point is - when is the catastrophe of the Holocaust relegated to bumper sticker slogans? When do stories and performances that use the Holocaust just become a meme that can be used to define and explain seemingly anything? Recent misappropriate comparisons include Brazil's President Dilma Roussef who said that attempts to impeach her over corruption scandals are similar to the Nazi persecution of Jews. The Chief Justice of Alabama, Roy Moore, defied the legalization of gay marriage in the United States and compared it to the Nuremberg Laws of Germany that made Jews and their full citizenship illegal. His point (I find this reasoning convoluted) is that those (often fundamentalist Christians) who don't agree with the legalization are an oppressed minority. Ben Carson, the Republican candidate, made a remark while on the campaign trail that "if Jews had owned guns, the Holocaust wouldn’t have happened." This was meant to endear him to gun rights advocates who feel themselves to be an oppressed people like the Jews, and who, in his opinion, may have to take up arms against the United States government. 

There seems to be a pattern that Jews are a symbol for all minorities to compare themselves themselves to, and that the Holocaust is transferable to any kind of perceived and or even real threat of oppression. I am under no illusions that many Jews and the Jewish community partake in feeding this idea, rightly or wrongly. The proliferation of Holocaust museums built due to Jewish philanthropic dollars as well as other foundations and donors not only are a testament to "Never Again" but also to the effort to stop other atrocities and catastrophes that utilize hate, fear, racism, and other means to create prejudice (governmental or from others) towards an oppressed group.

This can be seen in performances and appropriately so, as well. For example the newest version of Cabaret, by Fred Ebb and John Kander, augmented the ending and made a point to emphasize homophobia under the Nazis. The recent version of Fiddler on the Roof by Harnick, Bock and Stein (all Jews) on Broadway takes the beginning and end of the play to point towards the destruction that was to come to the Jews after Tevye and the inhabitants leave Anatevka. These changes and layering Holocaust foreshadowing make sense in these cases as they show the extension of anti-Semitism and exile, that with the knowledge of history, links it to the Holocaust. 

So when Alan Lester Brooks repurposes the Holocaust narrative to write a tense and psychological drama about a rabbi who is a Holocaust survivor, and uses it to try to understand the conflictual attitudes within the Jewish community towards Jewish immigrants to America from the Holocaust, many critics and audiences drew comparisons to the refugees from Syria and other lands who are in exile right now looking for safe haven. As one of the Jewish characters who is sponsoring one of the refugees says, "You are safe now." 

Yet the story isn't just about the Jewish immigrants after the Holocaust getting take care of in a new land, but shows the PTSD that is still to be dealt with by survivors. We see it in a story about one of the woman survivors who is placed as a domestic worker in the home of a well-off Jewish couple in San Francisco. She falls in love with the husband and she sees it as a way to overcome her fears and anxieties and take her life back.

But the main plotline develops through group sessions that the survivors regularly attend with the rabbi, who is the protagonist. They feel the need to have this meeting as an insider "tribe" and to give each other advice, peer counseling, and solace. Yet they remain outsiders to the Jewish community and the rabbi realizes that he must be a redeemer for them to get acclimated to America and to run interference for them with their Jewish sponsors. But then as a result of the group of survivors that regularly meets, the rabbi is asked to help in a situation of abuse and illegal activity which ultimately leads to the murder a of German man in their city of San Francisco. The rest of the play is about solving this murder. 

By setting the time period to immediately after the war, Brooks backshadows the controversies of today. On a certain level he seems to want Jews to get over the Holocaust since it can lead to tribalness, outsiderness, murder, and sociopathology; and on the other hand he blames Jews for not treating Jewish survivors with dignity. 

He also seems to be saying that the memories of the Holocaust are used by Jews to justify themselves in all that they do. He references Jews going to Palestine after the war and thereby makes the worst in an inappropriate political comparison. These references conjure the Holocaust in a simple minded way, as a bogus justification for why Israel was created through the feelings of sorrow for Jews after the Holocaust and demanding reparations for Jewish claims. When a con game is revealed in the play, this con in the playwright's mind is a symbol for Jews who trust in Jewish claims over others. The reality and more complex story is that Jews have always lived in the land now called Israel, since ancient times, and after resettlement from other lands that oppressed them, started the process of creating the modern country of Israel even while some Arabs accepted them and some rejected their return, all happening about fifty years before the Holocaust which wiped out a third of the world's Jewish population. 

In the early 1960s the film The Pawnbroker told a story about a concentration camp survivor who can't live as an emotionally healthy man. The film's narrative takes many twists and turns to understand prejudice, outsiders in society, oppressed minorities, racism, and the drug and prostitution world in Harlem in New York City. Yet the film lives on as a searing testimony of the Holocaust due to the performance of Rod Steiger, who combats his inner torment. The story and performance by Steiger transcends the facile comparisons to the inner city and goes deeply into the psychological core of this one Jewish man wrestling with his pain and loss and the meaning of being a Jew and a human being. 

Another excellent example of portraying the Holocaust is Son of Saul the recent Academy Award Winner for Best Foreign Language film.  It tells a story of the inner dimensions of a Jewish sonderkommando who is reduced to a non-human being. Yet his awakening is revealed to us throughout the film and all the side stories in it, though necessary to the plot, are in service to and do not intrude on what is important -- that the Holocaust is both inexplicable and must continue to explained.

Monday, May 25, 2015


At The Goodman Theatre in Chicago through June 7, 2015

By David Chack

Near the beginning of The Little Foxes, the Chicago businessman William Marshall, who is being courted by the Hubbard family for his company in opening a cotton mill, says that he isn’t in business for any kind of high-minded values – apparently referring to socialism or workers rights ideologies. He just wants to make money and the Hubbards are the kind of people whom he can do that with because they are “…partners who so closely follow the teachings of Christ.”

(L to R) Shannon Cochran (Regina Hubbard Giddens), Michael Canavan (William Marshall), Mary Beth Fisher (Birdie Hubbard), Dan Waller (Leo Hubbard), Dexter Zollicoffer (Cal), Steve Pickering (Oscar Hubbard), Rae Gray (Alexandra “Zan” Giddens)   

The moment is nearly a throw away. But in an insightful direction, Henry Wishcamper the play's director, has the entire Hubbard family pause, take in the phrase, and then go on. In so doing he creates an unspoken, even a secret acknowledgement between the members of the Hubbard family that they do not follow the teachings of Christ and this reflects the back-story that is Lillian Hellman’s own Jewish family.

Jews in the South were a different breed from Jews of the North. Acutely aware of their differences in a region that was demonstrably Christian, they found acceptance in their stereotyped role as Jews who were seen as necessary in matters of money and business. And in fact Hellman’s family came from Demopolis, Alabama where the play is set, they were in business, and they were a successful banking family. Her maternal grandmother, who the matriarch in the play Regina Hubbard Giddens is modeled, evidently never missed an opportunity to mock and belittle her father for his poor business sense in front of her and her mother. (Southern Literary Trail) (Jewish Women’s Archives)

In using her family as models for the Hubbard family in The Little Foxes and because she never mentions that they are Jews, Hellman felt free to make them into the stereotyped Jewish family that their neighbors expected them to be. They are greedy and avaricious and Regina is so vengeful that she orchestrates an act so horrible that not even the rest of her family can envision it.

Shannon Cochran (Regina Hubbard Giddens)

Hellman also references her own life as a Southern Jew in the daughter of Alexandra or Zan, who breaks away from her family at the plays end to join left-wing progressives. Many of those she joined with were Jews in New York City, also putting Zan (aka Hellman) in the tradition of Jewish leftists.

(L to R) Rae Gray (Alexandra “Zan” Giddens), John Judd (Horace Giddens), Cherene Snow (Addie)

When Hellman wrote The Little Foxes anti-Semitism was at its height in the world. In her personal writings she has said that when she went to pre-war Nazi Germany in the 1930s she really felt what it was like to be a Jew. Hellman felt the darkness that was to descend on Europe and consequently on the world. In my interview with the play's director Henry Wishcamper, he told me that the anchor speech for him was, "The people that eat the earth, are like the locusts of the Bible. And then there are those who stand around and watch them eat it. Sometimes just standing by is as evil as doing the evil itself. They aren't doing anything to make the world better."

For us to know the crypto-Jewish story, as well as the events in Hellman’s time, we then see a complex and psychological portrayal in The Little Foxes that shows a Jewish family that has been poisoned by their “outsiderness” in the South, no matter how successful they become. Consequently the play shows that they have become the demons their neighbors see them as. 

Wishcamper is relentless in his depiction of this family that implodes through their need for power and also driven toward their destination of darkness. The performances are searing from the portrayals of the Hubbards to the African-American domestic help Cal and Addie. This group of outsiders, though on different levels of power, are all hurtling towards an end that will drive them to the only solution, which is exile – exile from family and exile from the South.

Interestingly and even mythically Hellman brackets the evil through the play’s title The Little Foxes, referencing The Song of Songs in the Hebrew Bible. The Song of Songs or Song of Solomon is one of the great love poems in literature. The phrase “the little foxes” (2:15) is about how the little foxes will ruin the king and princess' vineyard of love. Many have written that this is Hellman’s metaphor for the beauty of the South and that the Hubbards are the virulent little foxes who will ruin it and lay it to waste.

But bearing in mind that the Hubbards are the crypto-Jews of the South, the “little foxes” is the oppressive evil of prejudice and racism that infiltrates the vineyard. And the vineyard is the Hubbard family itself. In other words, this place that Jewish families had hoped to have as their home and that they would make into a beautiful and intoxicating vineyard, is instead infected by prejudice born from hateful stereotypes, racism, greed, and power. The great irony is that the Hubbard family, unlike old Mother Hubbard of the nursery rhyme, is made into the "shylock" that their neighbors wish them to be. 

The Goodman Theatre, Chicago
Through June 7, 2015
Director Henry Wishcamper

Sunday, January 11, 2015


As the events in Paris and Bogo, Nigeria unfold there are images of horror that are screaming. We can only imagine what it must have been like for the satirical cartoon artists that were massacred by Islamic jihadists in Charlie Hebdo and the Jewish shoppers in the kosher market shopping for the Sabbath who were greeted by a man who wanted to kill them because they were Jews. 

I am also appalled about what I am learning about the massacre of possibly 2,000 people slaughtered by the Boko Haram in Nigeria, basically obliterating an entire town. 

We are shocked at the evil and we are also amazed. There was heroism reported. A French-Muslim man, Lassana Bathily led the Jewish

Lassana Bathily
shoppers down to the walk-in freezer in order to hide. Then he escaped and at first though briefly held by the police as possibly connected to the jihadist, he then was released and continued to help the police so they could save the people in the market.

These attacks are attacks on the freedom of ideas, the power of the arts, the transmission of culture, and the ability to be transformed. Yes, Charlie Hebdo was a playful, satirical magazine, provocative and sometimes brutally irreverent. In this way it was performative, getting us to sit up and take notice, but also getting us to really think and see the world through our darker sides and then to examine them to decide how we feel about immigrants, races, gender issues and sexuality, politicians, religions, and more.

These attacks are also against the Jewish people. They can be seen as an accumulation of attacks, not necessarily linked, that have occurred relatively recently - from the Hyper Cacher Jewish market

to an attack on a Jewish school in Toulouse in 2012 where children and their teacher were killed. They echo the attack on the Jewish museum in Belgium in May 2014 where a shooter burst in and killed four and the attack on the Chabad Jewish Center in Mumbai in 2008 that killed six including the rabbi and his wife. Their two year old son was saved by his Indian nanny; and the very recent November 2014 attack in an Israeli synagogue where five men were killed who were praying. Even in the Charlie Hebdo office the only woman killed was a Jewish woman, Elsa Cayat,

Elsa Cayat
who worked there and was specifically sought and killed by the jihadists, as other women were left alone. Her cousin reported that she had been receiving anti-Semitic threats. 

These attacks are also specifically against ideas and the transmission of knowledge. The Boko Haram kidnapped 276 girls from their school seeking to eradicate any form of education that is against their values and desire for power. They have specifically targetted schools. They are also against freedom for women, since they believe in a caliphate of Islamic beliefs that are repressive. The recent massacre is showing an upsurge in their quest for a fundamentalist caliphate.

In other words these attacks are an assault on a new world. It is a world that is closer than ever before due to the digital world we live in. This world lives in close proximity to different religions, different belief systems, different cultures and most of all different identities - both individual and collective. This also means that we are in an age of transculturalism - a vital way of seeing the world as "collected identities." We no longer live in the age of the melting pot seeking to merge all heritages and cultures into one big identity, which basically means the identity of the majority culture. 

One of my prophets is Paul Simon and his album "Graceland" is for me one of the great works of art

Miriam Makeba and Paul Simon

On it he has many pieces that depict this transcultural journey and the song that says it best for me is Under African Skies. If there is anything redeeming in all of this, perhaps we can hear it in his voice.: 

Joseph’s face was black as night
The pale yellow moon shown in his eyes
His path was marked
By the stars in the Southern Hemisphere
And he walked his days
Under African Skies

This is the story of how we begin to remember
This is the powerful pulsing of love in the vein
After the dream of falling and calling your name out
These are the roots of rhythm
And the roots of rhythm remain

Thursday, October 16, 2014

AT LAST: A Tribute to Etta James

Review of AT LAST: A Tribute to Etta James
Written and directed by Jackie Taylor 
Co-director Daryl D. Brooks, Musical Director Robert Reddrick
Through December 28, 2014
At the Black Ensemble Theater in Chicago

"Etta James. Etta James, Etta James, I gotta have my Etta James." This refrain is repeated over and over again in an almost ritualized fashion evoking the great singer of blues, jazz, country blues, soul, rock and roll, and just about anything else that was thrown at her in Jackie Taylor's dramatized revue AT LAST: A TRIBUTE TO ETTA JAMES at the Black Ensemble Theater in Chicago.

The show posits the many Etta James' and has five wonderful singers portraying each of her multi-dimensions played by Candace Edwards, Arzula Gardner Melanie McCullogh, Alanna Taylor, and Yahdina Udeen. Each has a different aspect of her personality and each has her own incredible singing voice. One who is more soulful, to one who is more gutsy, to one who is more childlike, to one who is more bluesy, and to one who is a more straight-ahead composite of all them. And the women explore the many personalities behind the songs at the prodding and demanding of one Ms. Real. She insists that they are all brought together to understand and pay tribute to the great person that they all represent.

Taylor's dramatic revue is about how Ms. Real, played by Rueben Echoles, who is conducting the "tribute" to Etta, insists that they must explore the different facets of Etta's psychology: her bouts with depression and drugs, her self hating, her problems with men and her inability to love herself. And the show has the many Etta James' argue with themselves and sing their hearts out from one hit song to another (with much support from the audience who do shout outs as though at church).  

In Etta James' memoir "Rage to Survive" she has to go through such therapeutic experiences, when she is given the choice by a judge to go to rehab or go to jail for her drug habits as well as other crimes she has committed. She chose rehab and just as in Taylor's show, Etta resisted learning about her psychological disorders with all her might. 

Throughout, each singer taunts the other in opposition, counterpoint and in exploration of the true Etta James. This is enacted in the second act by a singing competition and each Etta James tries to outdo the other in singing prowess reaching and raising the rafters on each song and finally coming to the realization that each is an important aspect of who Etta is. Imagine James Brown, Phoebe Snow, Diana Ross, Roberta Flack and Mahalia Jackson all combined into one and maybe you'll understand the power and emotion of Etta James. Clearly Jackie Taylor milks the most out of these singing voices (and Etta's voice did change over the course of her career).

The weaknesses in the piece are in the scriptwriting, especially in the first act as it sets up the confrontations in the second act, and in how it doesn't really tell us much about Etta James' life story. According to her memoir it is fascinating, dramatic, heartbreaking, and poignant. 

But the singing and the performances of each of the Etta James' is truly amazing. They go from one iconic song to the next and finally end on what we have all been waiting for "At Last." And even though we know that this is where they are heading from the very beginning -- as we hear from each actor singing from the depths of Etta's soul, we must join in and say "Etta James, Etta James, Etta James, I gotta have my Etta James."

Sunday, September 14, 2014


By Aaron Posner
Adapted from the novel by Chaim Potok
Directed by Kimberly Senior
Produced by TimeLine Theatre in Chicago
At Stage 773 through October 18, 2014

Alex Weisman as Asher Lev, Lawrence Grimm as the Father, Danica Monroe as the Mother

When I was 12 years old I read a book that changed my life. It was The Chosen by Chaim Potok. I marveled at how Potok was able to capture the beauty of Judaism and at the same time depict a secular world with exciting baseball games, the joys of literature and the ideas of Western thought. Then The Promise and My Name Is Asher Lev came out and I was hooked.

Potok’s book My Name Is Asher Lev struck home for me personally, since Asher was an artist and I was in theatre and a singer. For me the creative impulses of being an artist and a Jew came from the same spiritual place. I found a Judaism which lived and breathed through storytelling, humor, song, dance, performance and textualities coming from Judaism’s ‘thousands of years’ dialectic with Torah and Talmud. Also the Judaism I followed had experiences in chavurot or small fervent communities with ecstatic prayer, meditative practices, and creative experiences. It is no wonder that Chaim Potok was one of the leading lights for the Chavurah Movement of young Jews, starting in the 60s and 70s.

The play of Asher Lev is set against the landscape of a world where it is dangerous to be a Jew, where the wonder of life cries out to be explored through creative expression, and about the intense passion from a Chasidic way of life that. Showing the pressures on Asher and his Chasidic family in a 1950s household in Brooklyn after the Holocaust and during the reign of Stalin in the Soviet Union, the play takes place when Jewish communities were rebuilding their lives. The parents, who are emissaries – shluchim – for the Rebbe the spiritual leader of their community, have to deal with an inquisitive and creative son who is passionate about “idolatrous” art, which is anathema to their world. While doing the Rebbe’s work, Asher’s mother suffers the loss of her brother and she goes into a deep depression.

Asher, in the play as our narrator, looks back in time and describes his predicament living with a depressed mother and his yearning to create art. As we the audience hear his tale, we long for him to leave his home and find himself. Eventually he goes on to study art (through a recommendation by the Rebbe) and he grows up to become the thing that his parents do not want, a famous artist.

But as Asher narrates, he speaks as though disembodied, without much connection to his parents, to Judaism or himself. It is telling that in the talkback discussion after the show, Alex Weisman the actor who played Asher, responded to a question by saying that he believed the play is more about the parents than it is about Asher Lev. This basic misconception of Potok’s intent was apparent from the performance and this production. 

Purposely, Potok uses Chasidism because it is a branch of Judaism known for emphasizing the awe in the universe that can be found in every human action, from the trivial to the portentous. It is a Judaism that leads the person in prayer to the celestial heights. It is filled with music, dance, storytelling and intellectual discourse, and even, at times, through drink and wild merriment. 

Alex Weisman as Asher Lev

Sadly, director Kimberly Senior  gives no emphasis to how Asher’s artistic passion is related to his Chasidic roots. A fine director (great work in Northlight’s The Whipping Man), I am sorry to say that this play gets away from her. Its deep themes of spiritual and Jewish content are not evident in her work with the actors or in the staging.

An example, Asher is supposed to have payos (side hair curls) that Chasidic boys and men grow out. They are continually referred to as a major part of his identity. Yet he doesn’t have them and looks quite “reformed Jewish” (Weisman words describing his own Jewish upbringing, in the talkback).

A missed historical detail is in the costume choice for the Rebbe. Astonishingly he comes out in a modern synagogue-style tallit (prayer shawl), rather than, either, a traditional Polish-style coat and shtreiml (fur hat) or a large fedora typically worn by the Lubavitcher Rebbe -- the sect Potok used as the inspiration for this fictionalized sect, as the Ladover.

A more important scene is when Asher, who is now taking classes in an artist’s studio, is going to paint a live nude model for the first time. This scene entirely loses its world shattering impact for Asher, because the female model partially disrobes for only a second and Asher barely registers it. Yet this moment should have been a telling one for him. Afterwards he tries to explain it to his parents, about why drawing nudes is so important for an artist. Clearly, in the script he is affected and brought to some sense of the mystery of the female body, as a transcendent and revelatory moment. But on stage it seemed rushed and embarrassed.

A bizarre production choice is the fact that Asher, who is constantly drawing, shows his pictures to his parents, yet nothing is on the page. He then posts them on a large wall and before us are a lot of blank pieces of paper looking like a lot of ‘post-its’. It is emblematic of this production, that where we look for the art from the page, we can’t find it conceptually on the stage.

Most importantly, a major theme of the play is the question of Jewish identity and the need for healing the world and the Jewish people after the trauma and losses of the Holocaust. Yet in this production the Jewish specificity is a mundane story of generational conflict, creating a blandness throughout.

Asher’s parents go to his gallery opening and see his painting “Brooklyn Crucifixion,” a painting of his mother on a cross at his gallery show. Potok’s point, and what makes his work so interesting, is that Asher appropriates and transforms this symbol into a Jewish one for a post-Holocaust era, bringing Chagall’s “White Crucifixion” to mind. Going back to his Chasidic roots to bring the Moshiach “now,” the Messiah who will redeem the Jewish people and the world, Asher paints what is deep in his soul and even within the soul of his people. Ironically, it is this painting that shakes his parents to their very core as Jews, yearning for their son to embody the values they believe in. Though we see shock in his parent’s faces when they see the piece, the lack of a performative Jewish concept in the production and the way the scene is played, leaves the moment colorless.

At the end the character looks into a mirror as he faces the audience. Looking at himself (and at us) he says, “My name is Asher Lev,” the translation of his Hebrew name meaning “heart of happiness.” But this production does not go to that heart. Potok is exploring the search for identity, out of deep Jewish historical roots of creativity, revelation, exile, trauma, and transformation. It is for a world today that is yearning for a spiritual and aesthetically truthful journey. Given TimeLine Theatre Company’s great past work and its mission of presenting works from history as they connect with us today, this production is disappointing.