By MARK BLANKENSHIP
Yisrael Campbell’s life is just one conversion after another.
Obviously, there are the religious conversions, which are the basis of his hit Off-Broadway play Circumcise Me. Though his Catholic parents originally named him Christopher, Campbell has since migrated to Reform, Conservative, and finally Orthodox Judaism, and he has even moved to Israel. He’s turned that story, which also includes drug abuse, alcoholism, and bombings in the Holy Land, into a bittersweet solo show that finds humor in the darkest corners.
In order to perform Circumcise Me, Campbell underwent some professional conversions as well. This production is the latest stop on a career that’s evolved as often as his faith.
Back when he was Christopher, Campbell was an actor, studying at New York’s Circle in the Square theatre school in the late eighties. He eventually looked for film and television work in Los Angeles, and from there, he transitioned into a career as a stand-up comic.
His journey through Judaism made it difficult to work. Comics and actors are often expected to perform on the weekends, but Campbell wasn’t willing to work on Shabbat. “It wasn’t something my agents understood,” he says. “They couldn’t understand why I would turn down a commercial I had been cast in.”
And so Campbell became a stand-up on the Jewish comedy circuit. “I was traveling from synagogue to synagogue, from Hillel to Hillel,” he says. “It gave me a way to do this on my terms.
Eventually, though, he realized he wanted to explore some of the darker parts of his life—like the morning he spent guarding the coffin of a friend who was killed in a bombing in Israel. And so began his latest conversion, to playwright and born-again stage actor.
The new job was an adjustment. “The comedian is so trained to the laugh that I had lost the ability to remember that an audience can still be with you, even if they’re not laughing,” he says. “It’s been really nice to reawaken to that.”
There’s also the question of crafting a complete emotional journey over the course of a full-length show. Campbell intended to polish his performance in rehearsal, but last October, just a few weeks before Circumcise Me began previews, his father died. He lost two weeks of rehearsal when he went to join his family, but performances began right on time.
“It kind of took the pressure off creating this big, emotional life, because I was just trying to remember the line,” he says. “And actually, I think that helped me experience the emotional life of the play because I didn’t have time to stand back stage thinking, ‘Oh, can I do this? I’m a stand-up comedian, not an actor. Can I do this?’ I just had to go out and do it.”
In other words, there was no time to think. He just had to convert. Again.
Mark Blankenship is TDF’s online content editor