Turning Grandma’s FBI File Into Theater


Call it politics, or call it paranoia, but J. Edgar Hoover had files on more than 20,000 Americans, including a lot of Jews. Eve Sicular, a klezmer musician in New York, knew that there was an FBI file on her grandmother, Adele Sicular, but she didn’t know what it contained. “It was like a time capsule,” Sicular said of the file, when she finally got it declassified in 2003. “It showed an accomplished, forceful, determined woman.”

Sicular, the leader of Isle of Klezbos (an all-female sextet that is acclaimed for its innovative approach to Jewish music), set about telling her grandmother’s story in the best way that she knew — through music and performance. Isle of Klezbos will perform selections from the piece, “J. Edgar Klezmer: Songs From My Grandmother’s FBI Files,” on Feb. 6 at 9 p.m. at The Actors’ Temple ($15; [212] 245-6975, theactorstemple.org) in preparation for a mid-February run at the Centenary Stage Company in Hackettstown, N.J. Musicians from Metropolitan Klezmer, a related group, will participate in the performance.

“J. Edgar Klezmer” is, Sicular noted, a “stream of consciousness piece that moves through tangents from one story to another,” interweaving her grandmother’s political and personal lives.

Adele Sicular was a pianist, a psychiatrist at the Veterans Administration, and a leader in the fight to stop the United States Postal Service from delivering racist and anti-Semitic materials. She was an active member of the Citizens’ Committee of the Upper West Side, which the FBI listed as a “subversive” organization, and which came under fire for hosting a lecture by the African-American jazz musician Hazel Scott, whose own career was derailed by the blacklist.

“The organizations that my grandmother believed in and belonged to,” Sicular explained, “were summarily condemned and destroyed, and her reputation was actively besmirched,” even though the case against her was ultimately closed for lack of evidence.

The “documentary theater” piece has been workshopped at Dixon Place, as well as at the Puffin Cultural Forum in Teaneck, N.J., and the JCC in Manhattan. It embraces a wide range of musical styles — including jazz, R&B, baroque, boogie-woogie and gospel — along with live theater and multimedia projections. It comes just four years after the release of “J. Edgar,” a Hollywood biopic starring Leonardo DiCaprio as Hoover, and only two years after the publication of Tim Weiner’s “Enemies: A History of the FBI.”

Sicular said that the show is as much about her as it is about her grandmother; she is telling a “multi-dimensional story of a descendant searching for clues” about an ancestor. Along the way, she is “surprised by very human revelations,” including that of an extramarital affair in which her grandmother engaged. But Adele Sicular emerges as a remarkable person who was, in the words of her granddaughter, “full of drive to improve the world for people of less privilege,” despite the peril to her life and career.