American Jewish Theatre

A history of Jewish theatre in America.

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theatre and dance quizWith many questioning what it means to be a Jew in a postmodern world, Jewish playwrights today are raising similar questions in their work. Gay Jewish playwright Tony Kushner (b. 1956) explores homophobia in his works, as in "Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes," which prominently features the gay Jewish character Louis Ironson.

Composer and lyricist Jason Robert Brown (b. 1970) explores assimilation and intermarriage in The Last Five Years (2002), which features the song "Shiksa Goddess." Brown became famous by writing the music for Parade (1998), which explored the lynching of Leo Frank.

A bit further from the beaten path, Lazarre Seymour Simckes found inspiration in Theatre of the Absurd when he wrote Nossig's Antics (2004), based on the life of Alfred Nossig, a Jewish artist who many charge with collaborating with the Nazis.

Viewers who are interested in Jewish theatre have many options to view Jewish plays today, from The Jewish Theatre of the South (Atlanta), to the Jewish theatres of Arizona and Detroit, to perhaps the most innovative works of Jewish and Israeli theatre at Theatre J in Washington, DC.

Throughout the past century, Jews have participated in the theatre as managers, directors, playwrights, actors, characters, and audience members. Initially, the Yiddish theatre managed to be Jewish simply by using the Jewish language of Yiddish. With the decline of Yiddish, Jewish artists found ways to explore Judaism and their Jewish identities. In recent years, theatregoers interested in Jewish themes have enjoyed a variety of options of explicitly Jewish plays.

Notable are William Gibson's Golda's Balcony, a one-woman show starring Tovah Feldshuh, and focusing on Golda Meir's life, particularly her service as Israeli Prime Minister and her Jewish upbringing. Younger audiences are turning to Bryan Fogel and Sam Wolfson's Jewtopia, a comedy about JDate in which a non-Jewish bachelor solicits the help of a Jewish friend to snag a Jewish wife through JDate, as the Jewish friend asks in return for help fleeing the Jewish community. 

Rather than looking back nostalgically to the Jewish past, these plays embrace the Jewish present and looked forward to the Jewish theatre of the future.

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Menachem Wecker

Menachem Wecker, who blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at http://blogs.chron.com/iconia, welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com. He lives in Washington, D.C.