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And why making her Broadway debut in this play about anti-Semitism means so much
Disheveled, dour and dressed in pajama pants and a Sinéad O'Connor T-shirt, Francis Benhamou's character Elodie makes an inauspicious entrance in Manhattan Theatre Club's mounting of Prayer for the French Republic, Joshua Harmon's emotional and darkly amusing play about five generations of a French-Jewish family grappling with anti-Semitism. When introduced to her distant American cousin Molly, she can barely muster a hello. That belies Elodie's true loquacious nature, though that's on display soon enough, especially in Act II when she schools the naïve Molly on the centuries of trauma and oppression experienced by European Jews in a blistering, no-holds-barred monologue. It's a showstopping moment, akin to a great aria, and it's why Benhamou knew she had to play the role.
"I was very lucky that my character has the same last name as me—Kelly Gillespie [the Associate Casting Director at Manhattan Theatre Club] thought of me because of that and was like, oh, Francis would be perfect for this," explains Benhamou. "It was very early on, no director attached, just a bunch of actors getting together at Manhattan Theatre Club's offices to read the play. Right away I knew that I was going to do everything in my power to make sure no one else ever played the role again!"
Throughout the show's development, Benhamou made herself available for every reading and workshop, and ultimately originated the role of Elodie in Prayer for the French Republic's world premiere at Manhattan Theatre Club's Off-Broadway house in early 2022. After years of impressive stage performances, including a desperate Afghan mother in Selling Kabul and the devoutly secular daughter of Middle Eastern immigrants in The Profane, Elodie turned out to be Benhamou's breakthrough role, earning her Lucille Lortel and Drama Desk Awards. The show's transfer to Manhattan Theatre Club's Samuel J. Friedman Theatre marks her Broadway debut.
Benhamou and Elodie share more than a surname. They're both Jewish—half Ashkenazi and half Sephardic, to be precise—and their mothers' families survived the Holocaust. "I've been doing the research since I was born," she says only half-joking, noting this is the first time she's played a Jewish character on stage. "I get to bring so much of my own knowledge to the part. It's kind of effortless when you're working from a fountain of your own truth."
Directed by David Cromer, Prayer for the French Republic alternates between a pair of Paris apartments in two different eras: 1944 to 1946, as Elodie's maternal great-great-grandparents manage to avoid deportation and wait out World War II, and 2016 to 2017, as she, her brother and her parents become increasingly alarmed by the proliferation of anti-Semitic violence in France. Identity, faith, history, hatred and whether Jews will ever truly feel at home anywhere beyond Israel are all discussed at length with Harmon's signature wit, passion and insight.
While much has shifted for Israel and the Jewish diaspora since the play debuted two years ago, the script has remained the same. It's the audience reactions that have changed—this period piece suddenly seems eerily prescient. "It hits so much different now," acknowledges Benhamou while adding that's why the cast has chosen not to talk too much about what's going on right now. "What we've talked about is how not to make it different in the sense that, in the world of the play, October 7 hasn't happened yet. As actors, it's important to remember that we as individuals have experienced more since then, but the characters haven't."
Mostly, the feedback has been positive. "I think people are really happy to be in a place where they feel like someone is speaking a lot of the things that they wish they could say," says Benhamou. Still, she hopes theatregoers remember that despite their commonalities, she is not Elodie. Off Broadway, "I was leaving the theatre and this woman, an anti-Zionist, was extremely angry and kind of came at me," Benhamou recalls. "She kept telling me she could eviscerate my speech and was giving me bullet points. I was like, 'I'm just an actor!'"
Of course, that's a testament to Benhamou's delivery of Elodie's searing speech. At three pages, it's truly a feat as it careers from Israel to 9/11 to Nazis to Ladino to atrocities in other countries. "Elodie is so verbose and very articulate," Benhamou says. "Even though at times it may seem like one point has nothing to do with the next, it actually does. She always ends up coming full circle to explain exactly how she got there. It's incredible writing, so it's an honor to be the one to deliver those words."
Being in the play has inspired Benhamou to start conversations with her relatives about their family history. "My grandmother's family died in the Holocaust, so the play hits really close to home for my mom," she explains. "We didn't grow up religious at all, the traditions were mostly passed on from my grandma. Once she died, my mom didn't keep them up. But this play got us talking about how she felt about being a Jew in South America," specifically Uruguay, where the family immigrated and where Benhamou was born. "It was revelatory for me. I was raised in a Spanish-speaking household of Jews in Miami. So, I've always gotten a lot of, 'Wait, you're Jewish. But aren't you Spanish?' People don't understand that there're Jews everywhere."
Despite all her firsthand knowledge, Benhamou says she's learned a lot about being Jewish from Prayer for the French Republic. "I didn't realize the degree of persecution that we experienced," she says. "Beyond the Holocaust, I didn't understand the history. I just love that this play opens up a dialogue that is nuanced and a relief from the faceless, argumentative nature of social media. It means a lot."
Prayer for the French Republic is also frequently available at our TKTS Booths.