For most of the last few years, I’ve worked a lot on new plays. It’s fun and challenging, and you get to hear from tons of new voices. The new play-sector is no less obsessed with youth than the rest of our culture, so lots of these new plays are written by young writers. Younger writers tend to feature younger characters, too (write what you know, right?).
So I was surprised when I started going through the submissions to our Playwriting Contest to see the large number of older characters. I went back and ran some numbers, and 51% of the non-holocaust plays featured these older folks. That’s a pretty high number, right?
And these were not just a bubbe making an appearance here or there – these were principal characters critical to narrative and theme who were of a certain age. (“Older”is certainly a relative term, but for argument’s sake, let’s say over 60).
In many cases, these older characters carried some sort of… wisdom or knowledge that either allowed them to speak clearly as Jews, or just as often, to provide an authentic Jewishness, a sort of ethnic north star, for younger characters.
So, this got me thinking: are Jews old? Is there a sense that you have to attain a certain chronological place before you can fully claim your Jewish identity?
It’s an intriguing thought.
Are these writers simply using an age old device, employing elder characters to speak profound truths? From Shakespeare to Lorca to August Wilson, the grammy, the abuela, or the ancient and respected matriarch have carried weight and authority.
Or is there something deeper at work here? When do we feel fully invested in this complicated thing we call “Jewish identity”? It is a hard thing to get your head around: there’s a difficult language, a religious practice with a ton of rules, a history of oppression, Israeli politics (oy), and a lot of traditions that ask you to buck the mainstream of American life (rest on Sunday? Not us, we rest on Saturday. Christmas? Forget it.). Maybe it just takes a while to get the hang of all that.
I also get a sense that some of these folks are trying to reach back and claim something they see as valuable. Take Laurel Ollstein’s play Esther’s Moustache (about to go into its second production at NJ Rep in December). In this fantastic new piece, an adult graphic novelist in San Francisco – if not running from, then fairly divorced from her Jewish roots – suddenly plays host to her Russian grandmother, who sets up in her living room and starts making soup. I don’t want to give away too much – you should go see it (or, if you are a producing theater, request it from me so you can put it on your season).
What I can tell you is that by the end of the play the artist is learning to make latkes and the grandmother is wearing sandals on Venice Beach.
Maybe that’s where these older characters come from – a desire by a new generation of Jewish theater artists to try and resolve the tensions and find the resonances between history and a new millennium.
Of course, maybe it’s just because Jews are old.
What do you think?