Nothing marked the end of an era in American history as spectacularly as “Gone With the Wind,” the film that displayed the crumbling of the Southern aristocratic way of life in the years following the Civil War. But as Barbara Kahn shows in her new play, “Women of the Wind,” the movie ironically truncated the careers of some of the women who worked on it — women who could not overcome intolerance in American society. “Women of the Wind” opens this week at the Theater for the New City, 75 years after the premiere of Victor Fleming’s cinematic masterpiece in December 1939.
Kahn premieres a new play every year at TNC; her works, which include two plays about Eve Adams, a controversial Jewish, lesbian bookstore owner in 1920s Greenwich Village, often have Jewish characters. In “Women of the Wind,” which is directed by Kahn and Robert Gonzales Jr., Kahn turns her attention to two secondary characters in “Gone With the Wind,” along with the fading Russian Jewish film star who was hired to coach the actresses who played them for their screen tests.
Butterfly McQueen (Adrienne Powell) played Prissy, the African-American maid to Scarlett O’Hara, and Ona Munson (Reanna Armellino), who married three times to conceal the fact that she was a lesbian, played brothel owner Belle Watling. (Both were coached by Alla Nazimova (Steph Van Vlack), a former student of Constantin Stanislavski’s at the Moscow Art Theatre. However, all three women saw their careers take a nosedive after World War II, when they tried to make it in a film industry that was notoriously intolerant of minorities.
Nazimova’s fall was particularly spectacular. Forced to emigrate from Russia when it was discovered that she was Jewish, she made her debut in New York in 1905, in “The Jews” (also translated as “The Chosen People”), a tragedy by the non-Jewish Russian playwright Evgeny Chirikov about a Jewish ghetto that is destroyed by a pogrom. But after introducing the works of Henrik Ibsen to America and becoming a Broadway star, she moved to Hollywood, where she was plagued by rumors of lesbian affairs (including one with Munson) and orgies at her mansion on Sunset Boulevard.
In an interview, Kahn told The Jewish Week that her intention in writing “Women of the Wind,” which is based on extensive historical research, was “to show the similarity among the three forms of prejudice — racism, homophobia and anti-Semitism.” She set it, she explained, “within the context of what was happening in Europe at the time — a movie about one war was being filmed while another war was looming across the ocean.”
“Women of the Wind” runs through Feb. 22 at the Theater for the New City, 155 First Ave. Performances are Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m.
For tickets, $15, call SmartTix at (212) 868-4444 or visit Smarttix.com.