Almost a hundred years ago, a 14-minute song became one of the most celebrated and performed pieces in American culture. It’s a hybrid of classical, jazz, Jewish, Broadway musical, and blues. Rhapsody in Blue begins with what the outsider hears as the cosmopolitan swagger of a clarinet. It’s the tempo of the weary heading home as the city begins to rise: watching maids folding bed sheets, bakers making their dozen, florists setting out for market, the city dressing and undressing itself. On the inside, Rhapsody in Blue is many worlds coming together in a determined shaking-hands sort of way; but the solo always remains, an echo of a secular cantor. The clarinet in George Gershwin’s song is partly joy at being able to sing of sadness, but the very roots sound out an alienation, along with an appreciation of living together. The song became an anthem of urbanity, a tune recognizable, but little understood. It is perhaps the best example of what characterizes Jewish artists and Jewish art in 20th century America: a conversation with identity, tradition, new roots, community, and the individual.
In its seventh and final season the Jewish Theatre Collaborative, along with its director Sacha Reich and Milagro Theatre, where it performs, have put to stage Chaim Potok’s 1985 novel Davita’s Harp. This world-premiere adaptation, which opened Saturday, invokes the great tradition of Yiddish theater: validating the human experience, drawing out the dynamics of identity, questioning and supporting not just Jewish culture, but the broader framework of American experience. Reich and co-writer Jamie M. Rea worked closely with Adena Potok, Chaim Potok’s wife, to develop the script.
Potok was known for his journalistic brevity, but Reich and Rea’s adaptation brings out the elegiac poetry of his words, cutting and shaping them into a communal dance in which actors narrate the storyline, while moving through and being part of the scenes. Reich’s direction mirrors the steps of the words; and actors shift, take motion, and stop in harmony with the script. There is a music to the dialogue: each actor plays a note, and as an ensemble they make chords. The play makes orchestrated references to Potok’s themes.
The stage for Davita’s Harp is a multi-layered backdrop that recalls Richard Serra’s large rust-colored sculptures. The layers are thick and formed, recalling the shells of unfinished clay pottery. The only props are a table, a few books, and a door harp. The levels of the stage are close and also appear ceramic. A theme in Potok’s work was clay, the carving out of ideas and characters into words and the Jewish idea of tikkun olam, the world as broken pottery to be repaired by the good deeds of one person to another.
Davita, the feminine for the Hebrew meaning beloved, is the hero of the story. Her father, Michael Chandal, is an Eastern sea-border, descended from American Revolution stock and Episcopalian by religion. Michael is a journalist, Marxist, and atheist. He’s the early paper incarnation of Woodward and Bernstein, a daily reporter with Frank Capra as his typewriting angel. Davita’s mother, Channah, is a survivor of the pogroms, a cosmopolitan by travel, her brilliant study of Torah, and politics. She’s a high-ranking member of the Communist Party, an intellectual by nature, and a woman of letters. Michael and Channah are devoted to each other, to their principles, and most in love with their daughter. Davita struggles with herself in the world, as a Jew, a girl, a person, and how she will participate in both her father and her mother’s legacy.
Kayla Lian’s Davita is simply beautiful: with her hair tumbled at the temples, she captures the engrossed nod of a young girl living inside books; the delicate and unsure junior hands that sing out in determination, despite their lack of practice; the glossy-eyed look of fleeting attention that holds a power in a child’s eyes.
Davita, like so many well-rounded 9-year-old girls, has a definite sense of honoring herself as a being in process. She’s stubborn at all the right times, outspoken about iniquity, hopeful in her quest to fan the fires of curiosity, loyal to the spirit of honesty in all its forms. Davita is kindred to the younger Chaim Potok, as most of his protagonists are. Davita loves books, embraces imagination as a form of knowing, straddles the worlds between academic and Yeshiva education, is familiar and invested in a person’s experience, and holds stakes in facts. Davita from an early age wrestles with G-d.
Davita’s parents are also wrestling in their way, and trying to make the world a better place. The times they live in are war-torn and chaotic: the Spanish Civil War, World War II, the Shoah descend upon their lives turn the idealism of their youthful politics into strident humanitarian action. At times Davita is left out of her parent’s attention, while she is simultaneously submerged in the destruction around her. Through her innocence and inherited bravery she stands out from her parent’s beliefs, by seeking to understand what makes something important to another person.
Heath Koerschgen plays Davita’s father with the little pomp of optimism that keeps longtime activists alive. He’s gentle in his motions, careful as he delivers his speeches. His generous performance is a generosity of heart, which Davita’s father embodied. Koerschgen’s voice is full of sunshine, and in his conversations with Davita, he’s making a rapport with another human being over how she understands the world. He’s neatly and genuinely egalitarian with his love.
Davita’s mother, Channah or Annie, played by Danielle Weathers, is more earthbound, but of a platinum nature. She’s noble and fair of spirit, the woman who admires the content of character more than the outward appearance. In one of the most moving moments in the play, Channah gives a memorial speech to the Communist Party on Michael’s death. The wholeness and strength of this multi-faceted woman, who in her time survived genocide, obtained a college degree, volunteered in the hope of a better tomorrow, embraced love, and made a family, conveys a nobility that meets the edges of sorrow. In her moment of crisis her composure stays, but the veins of her neck are made visible, her voice is loud, she is aching at death: while her hands plead at the sky for some redemption by compassion, she is made more solid and human as her tears cross her cheeks.
Potok, unlike his fellow authors Saul Bellow and Philip Roth, who described a crisis and anxiety of being Jewish and American, wrote of uneasy, but real dynamics that went beyond personal conflict. Like his peers, Potok was able to describe trees, neighborhoods, rooms, and conversations in authentic detail. His attention as a historian and scholar makes his characters seem living, and in Davita’s Harp the most obvious illustration is Jakob Daw. Jakob is a friend of Channah’s from Europe, an intellectual, Communist and writer. JJ Johnston gives off his heavy guttural accent with the smooth cadence that jumps into little sparks when he approaches an “h” or a “y.” His posture is bent, and it’s not clear if it’s from a heavy heart or a burdened mind. Jakob is a character from history, somewhere between the Jewish Socialist Robert Capa, who documented the playing fields of the Spanish Civil War with his camera, or the heavy footed and defeated philosopher/critic Walter Benjamin, who died while fleeing the Nazis in Spain. Johnston plays him with a sad tenderness, a man out of time, who has the power to live an unconventional life as a full-time humanitarian. Johnston’s Daw is a chrysalis of Potok’s description, bringing to the stage a figure from history of an unlikely and unsung hero.
While Potok’s writing went straight to the point, his intense understanding of how history and experience build connections makes his work complex. He takes the everyday and draws lines to the bigger theater of street, city, country, continent, and history. With Davita’s Harp there isn’t a linear sense of time, but rather a continuum: the characters participate in or are aware of history as an organic, tangible presence that comes and goes, like the kinetic energy of bees looking for nectar. Reich and Rea’s script unpacks the intricate novel. The dramatic parallels between history and people that Potok infers are composed in the play and acted with a delicate, dedicated, and fine hand.
Potok’s understanding of experience is like the knots on a tzitzit, the fringe of a Jewish prayer shawl: separate, but close and bound together. He uses traditional images, but reframes them in a contemporary context. Channah shares with Davita folk tales from her childhood, the stories of Baba Yaga. Anthony Green as the evil crone is a huddled mass of braided locks and hooded vestments, which capture and tear with gnarled hands at Davita. In this play, Baba Yaga is not the witch of the woods who eats children, but rather the real terror of anti-Semitism, the grieving of parents, the cold hours of loneliness.
Potok’s genius becomes obvious in his understanding and fairness to the characters and times they live in. Reich and Rea bring out with natural empathy the lives of these sophisticated individuals, and take us through complicated past events with ease. The production has honored Potok’s legacy as a humanist polymath, and a real, warm affection for a literary hero fills the air of the playhouse.
The issues that Davita’s Harp grapples with have no easy answers, only the invitation to question. The cast conveys full life-like characters who give the issues weight – not the urgency born from shock, but a respectful giving and taking between their work on stage and the audience.The elliptical storyline reinforces the presence of individuals within a community, and delivers to the table the most important of questions: What may I bring?
Jewish Theatre Collaborative’s Davita’s Harp continues through April 9 at Milagro Theatre. Ticket and schedule information here.