Theater Review: ‘The Christians’ Has Little More Than Atmosphere

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Erika LaVonn and Paul Deboy in “The Christians.”

Lucas Hnath’s “The Christians,” directed by Timothy Bond, is a juvenile undramatic portrait of a mega church and its Pastor. Playing at the Wilma Theatre through May 29th, the play tells the story of Pastor Paul, the founder of a successful super church who delivers a sermon (perhaps not incidentally on the day the church, after 10 years, is debt-free) wherein he changes his theological belief on the existence of hell.

After telling a story about a young boy, not a Christian, who heroically saves his own sister by running into a burning building, Pastor Paul concludes from this parable, that this boy will live on in heaven. Hell, Pastor Paul teaches, from the original Greek, is a dumping ground, not an actual place of eternal damnation.

This sermon, delivered by actor Paul Deboy, to his chorus, his congregants (the audience), his wife, (Erika LaVonn) and assistant Pastor Joshua (Delance Minefee), catalyzes his downfall as church membership declines and Pastor Joshua starts his own successful church. The rest of the play vaguely explores this theological controversy in a decidedly dilettantish manner, throwing around biblical verses in a cursory way that does not reflect deeply on the issues Hnath raises.

During the play’s opening sequence, the audience is entertained by a chorus of 19 singers (all local Philadelphians under the direction of Michael Keck) who sing evangelical songs (indeed I saw one audience member sing along clearly comforted by the play so far) with lyrics such as “build your hopes on things eternal/hold his hand, God’s unchanging hand.” The set, artfully designed by Matt Saunders, reproduces the super church environment.

But Hnath’s investigation of the theological concepts of hell, heaven, belief and faith fall short, lacking much substance. There is little, if any genuine drama in the play – Pastor Paul knows exactly what he wants and seems fearless and even arrogant in his manner. His tone and voice are reminiscent of Garrison Keillor from the Lake Wobegon live radio show – a preternaturally calm tone with a sing-songy cadence that does not suggest any struggle with his new belief on sin and the after-life. Pastor Paul seems almost too sure of his theological beliefs and feels talk-show-hosty and condescending to his parishioners.

Hnath too easily settles for a high concept to the detriment of much substance in this undramatic portrayal of a minister and his church. When his wife leaves him at the end of the play, because she does indeed believe in hell and finds his beliefs anathema, there is no pathos, the characters remain hollow, not even rising to the level of ideological talking heads.

The play is more often than not manipulative in its use of music and religion and relies too heavily on them to achieve some higher emotional effect. Nothing seems to be at stake for Pastor Paul who seems at peace in his newfound theological convictions, willing to pay the price (his church, his family) for his beliefs. When he repeats the line “I have a powerful urge to communicate with you, but I find the distance between us insurmountable,” it sounds more like an advertising slogan or something easily blurbed by a reviewer than a deeply felt piece of writing.

“The Christians” is playing now through May 29 at the Wilma Theater, 265 S. Broad Street. Tickets are between $10 and $25. Information: 215-546-7824.

Book Review: “The Devil’s Diary”

Topping the highlights of an exciting career as an FBI agent, Robert Wittman would include his adventure tracking down the long-lost private journal of Alfred Rosenberg, the man who, as the Nazi Party’s chief ideologue, laid the philosophical foundations for the Holocaust.  He spoke at Main Point Books in Bryn Mawr.

The Devil’s Diary is a game-changing true World War II narrative wrapped in a riveting detective story.  Wittman and his co-author, journalist David Kinney, mine the diary’s long-hidden contents to create a ground-breaking, page-turning account of the Nazi rise to power, the Final Solution, and Germany’s brutal occupation of the Soviet Union.

 There is also local historical resonance for the book.  Dr. Robert Kempner, the Jewish refugee from Germany who served with the American prosecutors at the Nuremburg trials, owned a house in Landsdowne, PA  and he spirited away 29 boxes of original documentation (“weighing more than 8,000 pounds”) from governmental jurisdiction.  Also, in case you wonder about the lineage for Alfred Rosenberg, the “devil” in the book title, Kempner kept Rosenberg’s personal ahnentafel, a family tree drawn up to prove that he had no Jewish relatives.

When asked how is life after retiring from the FBI and Wittman responded that it’s better!  He now does private investigative work and, whereas, the FBI only handles criminal cases, he can now handle civil cases such as for Rosenberg’s diary. Both of his sons have helped with his investigative work, including the Rosenberg case, but they’ve both moved on to separate careers.  So, does he need a student intern?  Yes, but risks are rather high, so he has not hired any other students.

HaShoah Book: “Fever at Dawn”

In the new book, Fever at Dawn, a fictionalized account of his parents’ courtship, the Hungarian film director Péter Gárdos writes that after surviving the worst of the Nazi death camps, Lili Reich wanted to convert out of Judaism (as if it would have mattered to the Nazis). Her suitor, Miklós Gárdos, was an atheist anyway, so he sought out a Catholic priest in a remote little church to do so. They had started out as pen pals, after Miklós sought out all the Hungarian women recuperating in Sweden, under age 30.

Rabbi Emil Kronheim heard about their intent, through the letters of Lili’s friend, and he arrived to stop them with a creative offer: he would marry them under a chuppah in a synagogue in Stockholm. He’ll foot the bill for the ceremony, the clothes, and a reception for their friends. He even promised the Red Cross would be obligated to provide them with a room of their own afterwards. They accepted.

I believe the facts are all true, but the conversations are re-created from their diaries. A delightful story and an unique take on the Holocaust memoirs.

Technion Produces 2-Minute “High-Tech Hagaddah”

With lights, music and very few words, Israel’s Technion university has produced a two-minute “high-tech Hagaddah.”

The video uses breakdancing by Dvir Rosen, motion graphics, and an innovative laser light show. It is participating in the New Jersey Jewish Standard’s funniest Passover video contest.

Last year, the Technion built a seder Rube Goldberg machine.

NMAJH Celebrates 5 Years on Independence Mall

The National Museum of American Jewish History marks the fifth anniversary of its iconic building on Independence Mall by taking a fresh look at its core exhibition, which tells the story of more than 360 years of Jewish life. This includes new objects, as well as new insights into existing displays: [Read more…]

Shabbat and “Fiddler” in Pottstown

8-Fiddler-222x300A Pottstown synagogue and a nearby theater are setting the stage, literally, for a combined Friday night Shabbat service and opening night revival of “Fiddler on the Roof” on May 13. After the play, audience members may meet Tevye and his five daughters — or at least, the actors who play them. [Read more…]

New Picasso Exhibition Premiering at the Barnes Foundation

(left)  "Studies," 1920, Musee Picasso, Paris (right) "Harlequin Musician," 1924 National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. Given in loving memory of her husband, Taft Schreiber, by Rita Schreiber

“Studies,” 1920, Musee Picasso and “Harlequin Musician,” 1924, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. Given in loving memory of Taft Schreiber by his wife Rita Schreiber

The Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia has mounted a select exhibition of Picasso’s works from 1912 to 1924. The exhibition, called “Picasso: The Great War, Experimentation and Change,” examines the dramatic fluctuations in Picasso’s style during the period surrounding World War I. The exhibition is curated by Simonetta Fraquelli, an independent curator and specialist in early twentieth-century European art. It is on view at the Barnes through May 9, and will travel to the Columbus Museum of Art in June. [Read more…]

“The Archive Thief” Saved Rare Jewish Books During WWII

On Thursday, I attended a fascinating lecture at Drexel’s Judaic Studies department. The guest speaker was Lisa Moses Leff, whose new book, The Archive Thief: The Man Who Salvaged French Jewish History in the Wake of the Holocaust, is about Zosa Szajkowski, who single-mindedly rescued Jewish books and documents from Germany and France, as an immigrant American GI paratrooper during WWII.

Szajkowski brazenly used the U.S. Army free courier service to ship his parcels back — some two or three in a day — to New York, the last remaining branch of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. He continued to steal Jewish documents after the war and he financed his own scholarship by selling them piecemeal to Jewish institutions in the United States and Israel; the two top buyers were the Jewish Theological Seminary and the Hebrew Union College. He was eventually caught red-handed and he committed suicide in 1978.

When Dr. Leff, Associate Professor at American University, interviewed the elderly librarians who’d acquired the documents, knowing of their sketchy provenance, she found that they were proud of helping to rescue Jewish written material from the Nazis. However, some of the items were taken from institutions that survived the war, and there remain big gaps in the European archives. Everyone knew of Szajkowski in the library and archive community, but he was never publically named.

Ironically, the stolen documents have gained better care, having been catalogued and made available for scholarship. Indeed, when one librarian was asked about giving back the documents, he retorted that they — the European institutions — should pay for all the years of care and storage! Zosa Szajkowski, with his looting and his scholarship, singlehandedly established the field of Jewish historical research, using documents of ordinary Jews. So, do you think the end justifies the means?

“And Then I Danced” Reveals Power of Activism

Book-DancedThe Philadelphia book opening for activist Mark Segal’s new work And Then I Danced: Traveling the Road to LGBT Equality was adroitly staged at Philadelphia’s Independence Mall where Local 98 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers blared their Comcast grievances beside the program entrance, as both a Comcast and union leader arrived in the author’s honor. Activists, politicians, business and labor leaders, and many Philadelphia area recipients of his lifetime of social justice advocacy mixed in intensive networking and sharing of his often daring exploits throughout the party-like atmosphere and formal proceedings. Regardless of your politics there is an immense amount to be learned about methods of effective activism for every and any cause in And Then I Danced: Traveling the Road to LGBT Equality, Mark Segal’s fascinating and instructive, story-filled autobiography that brings forth a good deal of often suppressed GBLT movement history of which many are likely unaware.

And Then I Danced is a flowing read across decades of incidents and strategies leading to today’s remarkable degree of GBLTQ inclusion as equal human beings the mitzvah of kavod habriyut—honor for all that lives. At the podium Mark Segal offers the same bold, celebration of life and liberty as in his writing. The room at the book opening was filled with a rare kind of pure loving appreciation, including that from residents of the John C. Anderson Apartments, the first federally-funded LGBT-friendly residence in the nation, which is located in downtown Philadelphia. Mark Segal takes “Yes we can!” to the level of “Yes we did!”

Mark himself had many tales to tell that he delivered with passion, power and gratitude from the dais. His connection to Jewish values of liberty and justice for all shone through steadily and he did not spare the Yiddishisms in his talk. At points his writing reveals the Jewish appreciation of the importance of making common cause with those who are oppressed. He explains:

…my favorite headline came from the Times Leader: “Shapp Aide Tells Berger to Reconsider Homos Ban.”…After one long day of fighting, I asked Shapp why he was taking this on, and he told me, “Mark, I’m in the closet as well.” When I looked at him strangely, he laughed and followed up with, “My real name is Shapiro, I had to change it to Shapp to enter politics. So I understand discrimination.”

In June of 1975, Milton Shapp became first governor in the nation to have his state officially proclaim Gay Pride Month.

A rare charisma that arrives sans unhealthy narcissism shines from Mark Segal along with his capacity for the mitzvah of hakarat hatov — seeing the good done by those with whom he developed effective collaborations and naming it. Book clubs will love his presentations.

What Makes This Man Possible?

How does a person come to be so aware, and capable of a life of dedicated caring activism? The only Jewish family in the Wilson Park projects, born to immigrant parents, Mark Segal recalls:

Our new neighbors were hardly welcoming. I still remember the first few days of kindergarten when Irish and Italian kids would say to me “You killed our Christ,” or the one that always stumped me, “you’re a devil with horns.” Somehow I had become a deformed six-year-old murderer. For a while I’d subconsciously touch the top of my head, waiting for the horns to grow, and I wondered, how could I possibly comb my hair with horns?

One time my mother went to my grade school to defend me because the teachers had demanded that I sing “Onward Christian Solders.” In those days there was still prayer in public schools, and they had us sing Christian songs…, so I knew discrimination from a very young age… My refusal to sing “Onward, Christian Soldiers” was my first political action, my first defiance of conformity and the status quo.

Segal also writes of his anguish over his parents’ shame and pain at being unable to give him things, the toys a child would want. Poverty shrieks through his guilt when he shares how his mother cried when a rare, hard-earned gift to him falls through a hole in his bag and is lost. Many will rethink parenting of all possible kinds of children after reading this autobiography.

Acceptance Matters

Mark Segal’s parents’ acceptance of their son as gay seems almost miraculous, for its time. His cousin Norman’s experience was…more normative:

I didn’t want to kiss the girls. I’d look at the guys in my class and feel far more attracted to them. There was no doubt in my mind about this, but I didn’t know the word for who I was or what I was feeling. I knew, however, that I was okay with it. Now, I wasn’t going to tell anybody, not in the 1960’s…

When I was younger, maybe five or six years old, my cousin Norman was sixteen. His father discovered that he was gay, gave him a major beating, and threw him out of the house. Cousin Norman was the family member whom nobody mentioned. One day, I was in the backseat of my parents’ Studebaker while they were discussing him and I somehow picked upon the fact that he was a guy who liked guys — a fegeleh … I knew that whatever it all meant, I too was a fegeleh … As a teenager, I read in TV Guide one afternoon that on his PBS talk show, David Susskind was going to interview “real live homosexuals.” A new word different from fegeleh, somehow I knew it also referred to me. I just knew it …

Awakening and the Role of Riots

The movement for GBLT equality has historical flashpoints, as with all revolutions. The legendary Stonewall Riots were at a New York City bar and Mark Segal was there:

For me it started out as a frightening event … I was in the back of the bar near the dance floor, where the younger people usually hung out. The lights in the room blinked-a signal that there would be a raid—then turned all the way up. Stonewall was filled that night with the usual clientele: drag queens, hustlers, older men who liked younger guys, and stragglers like me—the boy next door who didn’t know what he was searching for and felt he had little to offer. That all changed when the police raided the bar. As they always did, they walked in like they owned the place, cocky, assured they could do whatever they wanted and push people around with impunity. We had no idea why they came in, whether or not they’d been paid, wanted more payoffs, or simply to harass the fags that night …

… As the riot was happening all around me, the idea of a circus came to mind, and then it hit me: we can shout who we are and not be ashamed, we can demand respect. It was at that point that Marty Robinson’s words hit a chord. We are fighting for our rights just as women, African Americans, and others had done throughout history.

Segal also cites San Francisco’s Compton Cafeteria riot in 1966 and the Dewey’s sit-in n Philadelphia in 1965:

Drag queens and street kids who played a huge role in both events never documented those riots; thus they have been widely eliminated by the white upper middle class, many of whom were ashamed of those elements of our community. But Stonewall, Compton, and Dewey’s all have one thing in common: drag queens and street kids. For some historians, drag queens are not the ideal representatives of the LGBT community. Oppression within oppression was and is still of concern.

Zaps

Once activated, Segal brought his intelligence and creativity to the journey toward equal rights. These came to be called “Zaps.” These often meant somewhat risky strategic actions, such as in service of exposure of media prejudice. He once went after CBS’ secure studio by means of asking a student training in the Radio, Film, and Television department at Temple to obtain the program’s Temple University stationary. Posing as students it only took two weeks to secure an invitation to view a broadcast firsthand, December 11, 1973:

Their usual pattern called for CBS to later rebroadcast the six pm show to the remainder of the country or, if breaking news warranted, they would broadcast it live again. At about fourteen minutes into the program, as Walter Cronkite was reporting to the American public about security procedures for Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon, I knew this was the moment, and for the first time while doing a zap my heart started beating very fast. I wasn’t scared but somehow I knew that after this event things would change forever. I rushed onto the set, holding up my sign and yelling the message printed on it, “Gays protest CBS prejudice!” The CBS Evening News broke down right in front of Walter. I stepped between him and the camera shutting him out of the picture to show only that sign. As millions watched, I sat on his desk and held the sign right into the camera lens so that everyone could clearly see the words. Gays Protest CBS Prejudice …

… “Why,” Cronkite asked the activist with genuine curiosity, “Why did you do that?”

“Your news program censors,” Segal pleaded. If I can prove, it would you do something to change it?” …

“Yes,” Cronkite said, “I wrote this show.”

Surprises

Philadelphians will find many political surprises in And Then I Danced. For example, support for GBLT rights sometimes came from both sides of the aisle:

Arlen [Spector] was district attorney of Philadelphia. He had not taken a stand on the gay rights bill that was before city council. Efforts to set up a meeting went unanswered. So we had to be a little creative. One crisp Monday morning, a caterer delivered two large coffeemakers and dozens of donuts to Arlen’s office. His staff thought that he had ordered the special treat, and Arlen thought his staff had arranged it. At the same time, in the City Hall courtyard, and in the corridors of the building, members of the Gay Raiders were handing out flyers that read, District Attorney Arlen Specter invites you to a reception in honor gay rights legislation in city council. Please join him at ten a.m. in his office, Room 666 (that really was his office number.)

At ten a.m. we, along with hundreds of city workers and a huge collection of news people arrived at his office, we walked in and there was Arlen’s staff trying not to look too surprised at a reception held in the office that their boss was hosting, about legislation he had not endorsed. Arlen remained in his inner office. At first, the media took pictures of me handing out coffee and donuts to City Hall staffers, and we weren’t sure if Arlen would even come out of his private office. Finally, the door opened, and there he was all smiles…

Now, here’s what most people never knew: in Arlen’s Republican years in the US Senate, when it was hard to support LGBT rights, he was always behind the curtain ready to vote yes on gay rights if it was needed to assure passage.

Addressing The Biblically Ignorant

Reading the Torah in service of GBLT rights takes new eyes. Mark Segal gives an example of how to do so:

“Says Leviticus,” she bellowed, “Man who lays with man is an abomination!” She was just going on and on until Phil interrupted her and asked if she’d like to hear my response.

“Madam, from what you say it seems you don’t respect religion,” was my reply.

She said, “I’m a true Christian.”

I stare her down. “A true Christian respects the rights of other religions. My religion accepts who I am. Are you inferring that Judaism is a false religion? If you’d like to talk religion we can do so, but I’ll also quote other parts of the Bible you seem to have forgotten.”

She exploded and just started tossing out various biblical verses at me.

“You don’t know your Bible well,” I said. That sentence would become a trademark comment from me in religious discussions. I continued, “you use your Bible like you were ordering from a restaurant menu. I call that Bible a la carte. You choose what parts of the Bible you wish to obey and what others to ignore.”

Then I looked her over and explained that all she was wearing that made her an abomination according to that same Leviticus chapter, which condemns wearing clothing of two different fabrics. Polyester-cotton blend, anyone? I followed that up by asking the audience a quick succession of questions about shellfish, metals, pigskin, and all the rest, then asked, “Do all of you obey your husbands? While I know none of you would commit adultery, I’m sure you’re aware that in cases of adultery your husband has the right to kill you. So, if I’m going to hell, you’re all joining me. As the Good Book says, he who has not sinned should throw the first stone. Is there anyone in this audience who has not sinned?”

As total silence fell over the room, I directed my next comment back to the lady with the Bible. “Oh, and one more thing, remember the Ten Commandments? Gluttony? How many of you are joining me in hell now?” No LGBT person had ever challenged an entire TV audience in that manner before. This kept the Bible-toting crowd focused on issues like discrimination, hate crimes, and entrapment.

Yes You Can

And Then I Danced: Traveling the Road to LGBT Equality came out in October of 2015. A second run of 10,000 has already been announced. The sheer number of political strategy memories can expand readers’ skills and savvy. Mark Segal’s sharing reveals realities and opportunities taken that have long needed better documentation. With inspired reader encouragement this valuable guidebook can enter not only homes, but also enter university and religious settings and serve to teach empathy and activism for generations to come.

Note: Learn more about the evolving acceptance of homosexuality across the spectrum of Judaism: Wrestling with God and Men: Homosexuality in the Jewish Tradition.

A Hunger for Learning

Refugee Kids: One Small School Takes On the World Trailer from Renee Silverman on Vimeo.

On Tuesday night, I attended a viewing of the documentary film Refugee Kids, about an American program set up for refugee children.  Run by the International Rescue Committee (founded by Albert Einstein to rescue Jewish refugees), the Refugee Youth Summer Academy transforms 120 kids speaking 26 languages from the world’s hot spots – Iraq, Egypt, West Africa, Tibet, Burma and Bhutan – from tongue-tied newcomers into confident, savvy New Yorkers over the course of a six-week program.

There is Helen, a 16-year-old Burmese refugee, who effortlessly translated from English to Burmese to Chin to Thai to Nepali.  There is Tek Nath, who in his first six months in America, did more than most adults: he leased the family apartment, translated for the surgeons operating on his brother’s heart, applied for the family’s green cards, opened bank accounts, and tutored both parents and younger siblings in English – and all the while maintaining straight A’s in his school work.  Tek Nath is a 17-year-old who had spent his entire life in a rural Nepalese refugee camp where he had virtually no English instruction.

George from Liberia had lost both parents at a very early age and was raised in Staten Island where he was confronted with the brutality of gang violence and yet still emerged as a student mentor, exhibiting leadership skills.  There are also the siblings who faced long separations from their families: Rigzin and Tashi from Tibet who are reunited with their parents in Brooklyn after eight years spent at the Dalai Lama’s refugee school in India; and Ida and Jennifer from Togo who were raised by their aunt and encountered an unforeseen family tragedy — fire and death of a young sister– upon their arrival in the Bronx.

The directors, Renee Silverman and Peter Miller, added to their footage with interviews in the children’s homes and in their communities.  The children narrated their often harrowing back stories in hand-drawn pictures, which were animated by the talented Brian O’ConnellLiz Swados, the beloved composer, recorded an original score before her untimely death.  Editor Aaron Vega wove the many stories together into a cogent, short film as his last project before winning a seat as American state legislator in the Massachusetts House of Representatives.

Refugee Kids is the second film by Silverman and Miller, following their teen Holocaust theater story, Sosua: Make a Better World.  Miller writes, “It’s something of a miracle that we were able to shoot, edit, and complete Refugee Kids for what might be the lunch budget of normal film, but we were blessed with generous and talented friends.”

The screening at Rodeph Shalom was sponsored by HIAS PA and the American Jewish Committee.  HIAS PA runs a similar summer tutoring program, and it welcomes volunteer tutors and donations of books.