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The OPEN Festival Boldly Dives Into the Contemporary Jewish Narrative.

David Winitsky

Back in January, the JPP staff sat down for a critical discussion. The election had happened, the inauguration was upcoming, bomb threats were coming in to Jewish centers around the country, Marie Le Pen was raging across France, and Steve Bannon around the White House. 

At the same time, Jared Kushner had the ear of the president, Bernie had come incredibly close to the office, Jews and Muslims were banding together across the country in solidarity against discrimination, and prominent rabbis were traveling to Standing Rock to stand with people in need.

Clearly, things were different in the Jewish world, and our upcoming Festival needed to respond. Artistic Associate Josh Benghiat joked, "Maybe the question is 'How is this Festival different from all others?'" We laughed hard, but then we stopped. THIS WAS EXACTLY THE QUESTION! 

And thus, THE MAH NISHTANAH PLAYS was born. 

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With Resident Director Benjamin Kamine, we approached 2016 Artist Panel Reader Abigail Katz of the Atlantic Theater, 2016 & 2017 Panel Reader Miriam Weiner and 2014 OPEN Director (and Persian Jewish artist) Pirronne Yousefzadeh, and asked them to help us draft a call for short plays. We selected a short list of writers we loved, and asked them:
a) How does your Jewish identity feel different than if did a year ago?
b) What does your Jewish identity/ethics/values call upon you to DO in this moment?
 

We wanted a snapshot in time of a people and an identity in flux; of values and assumptions challenged, of anxiety and triumph; of diversity and solidarity. We wanted our artists - the creators of 21st Century midrash - to give us stories that we could use to gain insight.  

We commissioned some of our favorite writers:  3-time OPEN participant Sarah Gancher (fresh off her success at the Public and on her way to net year's New York Theater Workshop season); 2014 Festival Playwright and Trans Jewish activist MJ Kaufman; New Georges Artistic Director and 2016 Artist Panel Reader Susan Bernstein; as well as one newcomer - writer, filmmaker, teacher and lecturer on Jews of Color, Shais Rishon, aka MaNishtana (100% Black, 100% Jewish, 0% Safe).

And they responded. Last week, we sat down for the first read through of 4 astonishing new plays: 

  • Ivanka and Jared on Shabbat? Check.

  • The Alt Right in Europe? Check.

  • Trans history and the Mt. Carmel cemetery? Check.

  • Black Jews at a white wedding? Check and check.

Then we asked New Yiddish Rep, a company revolutionizing our understanding of traditional Jewish theater with riveting translations and vital reimaginings of classic texts in Yiddish. Fresh of their triumphant run of 2016 OPEN's GUT FUN NEKOME (God of Vengeance), they will bring us the WPA Theater's VAHK AYF UN ZING! (AWAKE & SING!) - Clifford Odet's working class masterpiece, in the mamaloshn!

Finally, we finished off our 7-city National Tour with the emotional punch of 2017 Jewish Playwriting Contest Winner Mark Leiren-Young's BAR MITZVAH BOY. A funny, touching, emotionally resonant exploration of faith and tragedy, this audience favorite perfectly rounds out the line-up. 
 

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Together, these six plays exemplify the JPP's mission: to help next-generation artists tell today’s Jewish stories by connecting them deeply with Jewish ideas, ethics and values.

Please join us for these vibrant, exciting, funny, entertaining slices of 21st Century Jewish life!

All love, 

David Winitsky
Artistic Director

How to Talk to G-d: An Interview With Helen Pafumi of Redder Blood

David Winitsky

The play is such a great portrayal of 21st century Judaism, and it’s fairly common these days for someone to identify as both Jewish, and an atheist.  Do you think the play offers a way for Jewish atheists to approach spirituality? Did you have that particular audience in mind?

I really just wanted to write a play about human morality. When I wrote the play, I wasn’t thinking of a particularly Jewish audience. But the JPP has made me realize how large of an influence my upbringing in Judaism had on the play. Discussions of faith were huge in my house. These were big “what are the kids going to be?” type discussions, not just conversations couched in intellectual concepts.

The play offers very interesting philosophies about God. Did you create these philosophies, or did you draw on things you’ve pick up over time? Are these your own views?

I’m afraid to say it’s all me, because I might have picked up some of it somewhere without realizing it! But I didn’t do a lot of research in that regard. A lot of it is my own take. I even Skyped recently with the OPEN Festival cast, and they were asking me about the Jewish influence, asking if I drew from this particular Biblical or Talmud thing, or sometimes people ask me I drew from a certain Buddhist thing. I wish I could say I’ve done all this research, but it’s borne more from this idea of, how would a conversation with God really exist today? If God talked to us today how would that make a difference? I get hung up a lot on religious views that say we deserve something, and this idea that God forgives us all the time. The idea that we’re not accountable to one another, just to God, doesn’t square with me. The idea that we can pray for something instead of taking action ourselves, and not take accountability for our actions, bothers me. And I’m not even necessarily advocating there is a God. So it’s all the “Tao of Helen” I guess!

 

You have a lot of fun humanizing God in the play. How did this approach to God come about?

She’s a best friend to the main character, Sadie, so it makes sense that they have a lot in common. I wanted to give God a conversational tonality, and I wanted to counter the idea of God being omnipotent. I wanted to let God off the hook a little bit, to show that the idea that God can fix things with a thunderbolt, like miracles are sometimes thought of being, is not necessarily true.

The play is very funny, but it’s also very poignant, especially toward the end. Do you think it gives the poignancy more power because it’s balanced with humor?

What I love, not only as a writer, but as a theatre-maker in general, is comedy. I don’t think people do enough good comedy. I see this acerbic take toward comedy all the time, the idea that acid is needed to make people laugh. If we laugh together as an audience, then we will confront the dark truths with more honesty. We have a better time expecting the truth when we’ve first laughed together. I love seeing people leaving a theatre wanting to be better, to do better, and wanting more. We want more, as an audience, when something in us has been uplifted. I want people to walk away not just thinking about the play, but “feeling” about the play. 

Colin Greer Imagines Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

David Winitsky

OPEN Festival performances at the 14th Street Y will begin with a new version of Imagining Heschel, the political and historical fantasia based on famed liberal thinker Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s trip to the Vatican. The play is written by social justice leader Colin Greer, and the presentation is being co-produced by H!GHBROW, a veteran Off-Broadway and film production house, and featuresRonald Guttman (Mad Men) in a commanding performance as Heschel.

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