Read about NYC's best theatre and dance productions and watch video interviews with innovative artists
How this Yiddish musical crosses cultural barriers
It's unusual for a theatre company to revive a show just five years after its last mounting. However, when the directors of the century-old National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene (NYTF) sat down to plan the season, they realized almost immediately that Amerike – The Golden Land had a powerful new resonance. Originally produced in 1982 and last seen at NYTF in 2012, this revue chronicles the Jewish immigrant experience in New York City from the 1880s to the 1950s via period Yiddish songs and scenes. Considering the current political landscape and NYTF's new home at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, which has views of Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty, bringing back the show seemed fitting.
"It's important for us to remember that all of us were strangers to this country once upon a time," says Christopher Massimine, NYTF's chief executive officer who's overseeing the production. "There's a need for these messages. Xenophobia and extreme nationalism are present today. These are things we have to learn from or we can't know where we're going."
Even those who've previously seen The Golden Land (as it was formerly titled) will be surprised by how fresh this iteration feels. "There had always been talk that the show could be improved, that it was missing elements that could dive deeper into the history," says Massimine, who also worked on the 2012 production. Originally, the show was mostly performed in English; now it's almost all in Yiddish with English and Russian supertitles. The old romantic narrative has been scrapped and replaced by themed segments featuring numbers that vividly dramatize immigrant experiences (the language barrier, prejudice, eventual assimilation) and historical events (the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, the Depression, the World Wars). Although there are certainly bits that are unique to Jews (such as the Shabbos and Yiddish Theatre sections), much of the show is universal and relatable for anyone who immigrated here, which is most of us.
"Everyone faced extraordinary adversity, regardless of where they came from," Massimine says. "We're the country that lets people in; we're the land of the free and the home of the brave. And yet sometimes that's not what happens and we have to collectively call for change."
NYTF decided to make that "call for change" actionable by hosting an Immigration Arts Summit in conjunction with Amerike – The Golden Land's run. On July 17 and 18, this inaugural event at the Museum of Jewish Heritage will bring together a wide array of local arts organizations, including Pan Asian Repertory, Repertorio Español, Irish Repertory Theatre, the Kairos Italy Theater, the Turkish American Repertory Theatre, El Museo del Bario, and the Cumbe Center for African and Diaspora Dance for panels, discussions, and performances. Obie Award-winning writer/performer John Leguizamo will give the keynote speech on Monday, and the summit ends with a free concert in nearby Robert Wagner Park on Tuesday at 7pm. All offerings are open to the public for $10 to $15 fees.
"We realized it couldn't just be this show and that's it this summer," Massimine says. "This is a calling card to invite all these different groups together to share our struggles and successes. The state of the arts is so dire. It's an extraordinary and volatile space to be in, and everybody is just frantically trying to keep up. Even though it's a competitive landscape, we don't have to be competitors; we can work synergistically. How do we overcome these challenges? The summit is the initiating point for us to continue these conversations throughout the year."
A lot has changed for NYTF since the company last performed The Golden Land. Its core audience is becoming younger and more diverse (the current breakdown: 46% non-Caucasian), and it co-produced its first Broadway show, Indecent. Massimine hopes this new incarnation of Amerike – The Golden Land, which is gorgeously sung by a 12-member cast, makes it clear to audiences that this is not your bubbe's Yiddish theatre. "In 2012 it was much more geared around the Jewish-American experience, but now we took a step back to have a more global perspective," he says. "This is probably the most diverse crowds I've seen. That's important to us. It's a poignant piece."
Top image: Alexandra Frohlinger, David Perlman, Daniel Kahn, and Stephanie Lynne Mason. Photos by Victor Nechay/Properpix.com