History And Jewish Identity, Times Two


History’s shadows never stop lengthening. Two one-woman shows playing next week in New York explore how historical processes shape modern Jewish identity. Carol Lempert’s “After Anne Frank,” investigates the effect of the Dutch teenager’s story on the performer’s own life, while Gabrielle Maisels’ “Bongani” examines a relationship between a white Jewish girl and the black son of her family housekeeper in post-apartheid South Africa.

Both plays are part of the Fringe Encore series, which grants a second life to those productions that drew the most positive response from both critics and audiences at last month’s International Fringe Festival.

“After Anne Frank” comes after two other recent plays about the iconic Holocaust victim. Rinne Groff’s play about Meyer Levin’s obsession with the Broadway version of Frank’s diary ran at the Public with Mandy Patinkin playing Levin and a marionette playing Frank. Also in February, Jennifer Strome’s play about Levin, “The Idealist,” was performed in a staged reading featuring Tony Roberts and Allison Pill.

Unlike these plays about Levin, Lempert’s show is a personal meditation on the many ways in which her own life and career have been influenced by Frank. Lempert, an actor and Detroit native who was raised without any Jewish education, found an indirect route into her own Jewish heritage through appearing in three different roles in three different productions of “The Diary of Anne Frank.”

In “After Anne Frank,” which is directed by Janice L. Goldberg, she plays close to two dozen characters, including herself at various ages, members of her family and Holocaust survivors. “I had this hole in my Jewish identity that Anne helped to fill,” she told The Jewish Week. “She helped me to reclaim a piece of my history as both a Jew and an actress.”

Lempert begins the play by blowing the shofar and talking about the High Holy Days as a time of introspection. This leads into her journey through the world of Frank and what she calls the “ripple effect” that Anne’s story has caused. The title of the play refers both to the lasting influence of Frank and to the fact that the Nazis were “after” Frank and the other Jews that they had vowed to exterminate.

One of the most memorable characters, an ignorant woman from the American South whom Lempert met at the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, shockingly sums up the piece by pointing out Lempert to her daughter and saying, “You see, honey, the Nazis didn’t kill all of them.” Lempert’s play strikes a blow against intolerance; it is a tribute to the power of Jews not just to survive, but to use history to inspire and educate.

A very different kind of historical experience is at the root of Gabrielle Maisels’ “Bongani,” which is the second play in a planned trilogy about relations between Jews and blacks in South Africa. At last year’s Fringe, her play “Two Girls” explored the friendship between Corinne, who hailed from a middle-class Jewish family in suburban Johannesburg and Lindiwe, the daughter of the family’s housekeeper. “Bongani” shifts the focus to Lindiwe’s brother, who is the title character.

“Two Girls,” which ended with the characters in America celebrating Barack Obama’s inauguration, expressed hope that Jews and blacks could find a way to move forward together. By contrast, “Bongani” is a tragedy, in which the redemptive possibilities are foreclosed by the exigencies of life in a society indelibly scarred by apartheid and torn apart by crime, unemployment and the AIDS epidemic. In a review on nytheatre.com, August Schulenburg lauded the play, which is directed by Kate Holland, as a “piercingly political play” that “never sacrifices the characters’ complexity or agency in exposing the rottenness of the apartheid system.”

Maisels is the granddaughter of Isie Maisels, who successfully defended Nelson Mandela in the famous treason trial of 1956-1961. She told The Jewish Week that after Mandela left office in 1999, the country entered a period of intense despair and disillusionment. This is symbolized in the play through the character of Bongani. Even as he is able to get a private education through the generosity of his mother’s employer, his dreams are soon shattered, leading to hopelessness and rage.

“He’s a kid who cannot get a break and can’t fit into the mess that is post-apartheid South Africa,” said Maisels, who plays 11 characters in the piece. “The great irony is that he’s no different from a black teenage boy in an American inner city. There aren’t good opportunities and options for him.”
The relationship of Jews and blacks in South Africa is especially fraught, the play suggests, since Jews are both like and unlike other whites. As Immanuel Suttner writes in the introduction of his book of interviews with South African activists, “Cutting Through the Mountain” (Penguin, 1997), South Africa is one of the “few lands where Jews were not the primary objects of oppression and racism, but rather spectators to the systematic oppression of another group.” Maisels speculated that their fear of being the next group to suffer oppression meant that South African Jews “stayed identified and unassimilated in ways that America’s Jews haven’t.”

Like Lempert, Maisels embodies the effect of history on individual lives. But also, like Lempert, she sees the complicated mix of history with both psychology and social circumstances. “I identify more with Bongani than with Corinne,” Maisels said. “He lives in a chaotic and violent world. He has all these different responses and reactions and he doesn’t know what to do with them.”