After traveling around the country in the early 1970s interviewing laborers of all stripes for his path-breaking book “Working” (later turned into a Broadway musical), the celebrated Jewish broadcaster and oral historian Studs Terkel concluded that work is “about a search for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor; in short, for a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying.”
For Jon Adam Ross, a Jewish theater artist who, along with director Chantal Pavageaux, has similarly spent years talking to Americans from different regions, backgrounds, ethnicities and creeds, the idea has been to see how they create meaning — not out of their own occupations, but out of central stories from the Hebrew Bible. They co-founded the “In[heir]itance Project,” whose first project is an ambitious five-play series that recontextualizes the tales of biblical patriarchs and matriarchs in modern urban America; each play is set in a different city and focuses on a different figure from the Book of Genesis. After being produced separately in each of the cities that inspired them, the plays are now being performed together in New York under the title “The Genesis Plays.”
Ross, who grew up in Memphis, Tenn., and attended Camp Ramah in Wisconsin, realized the power of Jewish theater when he received a Spielberg Fellowship from the Foundation for Jewish Camp, which trains fellows to run theater programs at Jewish summer camps. His first one-man show, “Walking in Memphis: The Life of a Southern Jew,” ran Off-Broadway in 2005 and was ultimately produced in 47 cities in this country and abroad.
“The Genesis Plays” are funded by the Covenant Foundation, which fosters innovation in Jewish education. Ross’ endeavor kicked off three years ago in New York, where he convened a roomful of rabbis, scholars and artists at Yeshivat Hadar to discuss the story of Abraham. But Ross chose to create and set the five plays in smaller cities, to employ a range of dramatic approaches, and to use the plays to bring the communities together in new ways through the group interview process.
“The Abraham Play,” created in the Twin Cities, had 18 different community partners, including synagogues, JCCs, senior citizen centers and the Hillel chapter at the University of Minnesota. After Ross and Pavageaux conducted 500 interviews over the course of several months, they created a one-man play, starring Ross as a businessman who has lost the deed to his recently deceased father’s storage business, which he is obliged to sell so that he can support not just his wife and their son, but also his mistress, with whom he also has a son. The audience was given files with clues to help him to find the missing document and were called upon throughout the play for their assistance. After “The Abraham Play” came “The Rebecca Play” (Charleston, S.C.), “The Jacob Play” (Austin, Tex.), “The Rachel and Leah Play” (Seattle) and “The Sarah Play,” (Kansas City, Mo.).
In an interview, Ross told The Jewish Week that as both a playwright and actor, he has always been dissatisfied with the relationship that typically develops between the performers and the audience. “It’s transactional,” he said. “There’s no real connection.” He longed to create art with different communities, and to use sacred text as a way to foster deeper relationships.
“When you read Torah, you have to have the yad (pointer) in your hand,” he said. “I wanted to remove that distance between myself and the text.” As a founding member of the Storahtelling troupe with Amichai Lau-Lavie, he helped pioneer a theatrical approach to Torah reading in synagogue, which, by acting out the Torah portion rather than simply chanting it, aimed to break down all sorts of barriers between congregants and the Bible. This leveling of the playing field is a major preoccupation for Ross. “People often wield ownership over sacred texts for purposes of division, condescension and judgment,” he lamented. “In place of that, I want to plant openness, generosity and awareness of others.”
This desire came to the fore in Charleston; Ross and Pavageaux had initially planned to interview a wide range of mothers, but the massacre at Mother Emanuel AME Church occurred just as they were getting underway, and they decided to reach out to African-American churches. Orthodox rabbis wanted to show their support, but were unable to enter non-Jewish houses of worship, so Ross and Pavageaux found neutral spaces for those of different races and religions to come together.
The resulting play was set in Rebecca’s womb, as her twin sons, Jacob and Esau, compete for who will be their mother’s favorite — in the same way, Ross said, as “the city of Charleston plays favorites between blacks and whites.” (Interestingly, Ross played Jacob, who was widely viewed by the whites in the audience as the good guy, while Esau, played by Darian Dauchan, who is African American, was seen as “the big bad wolf.” But African-American members of the audience typically “saw me as the thief and him as the forgiver.”)
Relations between different groups came to the fore in Austin as well with “The Jacob Play,” which ended up being about gentrification. “We learned that white people were moving into formerly Latino neighborhoods and literally whitewashing the murals on the walls,” Ross recalled. The production turned into a one-night-only wrestling match, staged in conjunction with a Hispanic dance company and the University of Texas wrestling team. “Jacob presumes a kind of cultural hegemony,” Ross said. “Only after God comes and beats him up does he learn that he has to follow the local customs.”
In Seattle, where “The Leah/Rachel Play” was conceived, the Emmy Award-winning documentary filmmaker Ilana Trachtman (“Praying with Lior”) contributed footage of sisters in conversation with each other, which was used on stage as a major part of the production. And in Kansas City, where the project wrapped up, “The Sarah Play” grew out of dialogues between Jews and Muslims and about differences in the ways in which biblical characters are allowed to be portrayed, with or without negative characteristics.
Presenting the plays in New York, Ross said, is a radical departure from presenting them in the cities in which they were developed, where so many of those who were interviewed came to see the final product. He has been making the rounds anyway, going to the St. James Church in Harlem, to Town and Village Synagogue, Lab/Shul, the Council of Jewish Émigré Community Organizations (COJECO) and other both Jewish and non-Jewish places to carry out study and dialogue sessions related to the same biblical stories that the plays are based on. “I’m hoping that if people get engaged in the texts, they will come and see the plays,” Ross explained.
And now that the plays are being performed for the first time together, Pavageaux, who grew up Catholic, remarked that “you can see resemblances among them, just as even the black sheep of a family looks like the other members of the family.” The current moment in America is one, she observed, in which “we are all related as Americans but we don’t always get along; families are divided by politics and ideology. These plays have given us a lot of opportunities to give families and communities the opportunities to bring their own realities into relief with ancient stories.”
“The Genesis Plays” run through Friday, May 18 at the Theater at the 14th Street Y, 344 E. 14th St., at First Avenue) For schedule information and tickets, $18 (or three plays for $14 each with a Flex Pass), call (646) 395-4310 or visit 14streety.org.