This year’s OPEN Festival begins with the world premiere of Part IV of award-winning, Brooklyn-based theater artist Yehuda Hyman’s The Mar Vista. By turns hilarious, touching, and heartbreaking, the performance will also include Part I, a solo by Hyman, presented in the rotunda of the Museum of Jewish Heritage. The dance-theater work will eventually comprise five parts, and will premiere at the Theater at the 14th Street Y in December.
Part IV of the Jewish family saga takes place in 1960s West Los Angeles, where Yehuda's mother, a Russian-Jewish immigrant, tells her 9-year-old son stories of forbidden romance. Yehuda lived vicariously through these stories of the old country as a child. “My mother blessed me with imagination and creativity, and romance with a capital R,” Yehuda explains. “She told me about the magic of Istanbul, the water, the bridges. She introduced me to romance in literature and film. It’s also a curse, because I have an expectation that life is romantic!”
In contrast to these rich and beautiful stories is the reality of life as an outsider. Yehuda says his parents gave him a sense of survival. “Both my parents survived trauma, leaving places under duress.” While having a strong survival instinct is helpful for making a living in theater, Yehuda says the stakes were even higher as a child. “I grew up in a household where there was always a possibility of something very terrible happening. It was not always safe to be a Jew. We were proud to be Jewish, but there was this feeling of ‘don’t tell everyone,’ it could be dangerous. When my mom first moved to LA, she had trouble getting a job. She was a nurse, and they didn’t hire Jews. In LA, unlike Jews in many places in New York, we were on the outside. We didn’t live in a Jewish neighborhood. We were the only house in the neighborhood not to have Christmas lights.”
In Part IV, we see a friend come over to Yehuda’s house and meet his parents. The next day, the boy makes fun of Yehuda's family to everyone at school. During lunchtime, we see Yehuda eating Hebrew National salami on pumpernickel bread, while everyone else eats Oscar Meyer baloney on Wonder Bread. “You look around and see you really are different from these people,” Yehuda says. “That stayed with me.”
Part IV also explores the effect his family’s modest circumstances had on his self-esteem. “We weren’t poor, but we were definitely lower middle class. I didn’t get the sense, as a child, of Jews being wealthy and prominent. We belonged to a synagogue in Venice Beach called Mishkon Tephilo, that was actually founded by carnival barkers. These were very poor people, many of them Holocaust survivors. It was sort of a downtrodden synagogue, a hungry synagogue. And I was very drawn to that, but also, truthfully, a little ashamed to be a part of that.”
Yehuda shows us how truly tense it could be to deal with the outside world. But feeling isolated, and having trouble making friends, made his family closer. “I felt that we were this island unto ourselves, and that my mother and I were an island unto ourselves. My mother, particularly, tried to recreate a European version of her life in LA. And I think I created, as a little gay boy (though I didn’t know it), a little insulated life for myself.”
In creating Mar Vista, Yehuda shows both his parents’ wonderful and caring nature, and their flaws. “This has been a shameful experience, especially this last part,” he laughs. “I don’t want to be overly melodramatic, but I’ve woken up in a sweat around 4 o’ clock in the morning many times during this process. Revisiting this time in my life, it is kind of a dark feeling for me. Seeing both sides of your parents, it’s confusing as a child.” Yehuda says he focused on this duality to create a fair and honest portrait of his parents, and not over-dramatize his story. “I love them both very much, but I did have a difficult relationship with them, my father especially.” He adds, “But I’m not writing a love letter, I’m writing a play.”