James Sherman in The Ben Hecht Show Credit: Courtesy of the artist

The attack on Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue last October that killed 11 people shined a light on the ugly truth that anti-Semitism in the U.S. and Europe has been sharply increasing in recent years. According to a survey published October 23 by the American Jewish Committee, nearly one in three American Jews avoid wearing or carrying objects that will identify them as Jewish, and the same percentage said that Jewish institutions with which they are affiliated had been the targets of anti-Semitic attacks and threats.

So there is an undeniable sense of urgency behind Teatron: Chicago’s Jewish Theatre Festival, presented in conjunction with the Alliance for Jewish Theatre’s conference hosted at DePaul University and Victory Gardens Theater. The conference runs November 3 through 5, and the festival continues through November 10. Both are presented under the auspices of Shpiel Performing Identity, a theater and performance incubator based jointly in Chicago and Louisville, Kentucky.

But David Chack, Shpiel’s artistic director, says, “There is urgency in the sense of the attacks bringing anti-Semitism to our attention, but the attacks are not causing the urgency. The urgency is that we have theater artists and performance artists who are not only incredibly talented and doing works that come out of Jewish culture, but they are not being recognized the way that I think they should.” 

Chack, who teaches Jewish and Holocaust theater at DePaul, notes that he took his class to Krakow, Poland, this past summer. “They have a [Jewish] theater festival that’s two weeks long. They do music and arts and they get over 30,000 people to attend. In Krakow, where they only have 600 Jews. No other festival in the United States comes even close to that, and we have five million Jews here in the U.S. What’s wrong with that picture?”

Chicago has had theaters dedicated to Jewish culture in the past. The National Jewish Theater, housed in the Mayer Kaplan Jewish Community Center in Skokie, operated from 1986 to 1996. It was succeeded by the shorter-lived Chicago Jewish Theatre, which opened in Andersonville in 2003 and shut down after an unsuccessful bid to move to the Kaplan JCC in 2006. One of the things that Chack hopes comes out of both the festival and the conference is an expanded appreciation and understanding of what Jewish theater is. 

The panels for the Alliance for Jewish Theatre conference cover topics such as intercultural theater (as Chack notes, Jewish identity exists among people who also identify as Black, Latinx, and LGBTQ) and theater that reflects on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 

One of the conference highlights is a reading Sunday at 7:30 PM of Calvin Ramsey’s play The Green Book (not to be confused with the film Green Book), directed by Pegasus Chicago and Lifeline Theatre artistic director Ilesa Duncan. Ramsey’s play focuses on the simultaneous visits of W.E.B. DuBois and a Jewish Holocaust survivor to a small town during Jim Crow and reflects on the parallels between racism and anti-Semitism. 

Chicago playwright and actor James Sherman’s contribution to Teatron is a remount of his original solo play, The Ben Hecht Show (Wednesday, November 6, 7:30 PM at Victory Gardens), which premiered in 2016 with Grippo Stage Company at Evanston’s Piven Theatre and has since toured the country. Sherman, who writes frequently about Jewish identity and assimilation in such plays as The God of Isaac and Beau Jest, was initially drawn to Hecht because of the similarities he found in Hecht’s journey with Jewish identity and his own. 

Hecht, the journalist, playwright, and screenwriter perhaps best known for his scathing portrait of Chicago reporters in the 1920s, The Front Page (cowritten with Charles MacArthur), grew up in an assimilated Jewish family. But, as Sherman says, “There’s nothing like anti-Semites to make you think about being Jewish, right?” In the show, Sherman’s Hecht recalls a luncheon with a liberal Hollywood actress who asks him to explain why Jews have been so hated—with the clear implication that they must have some culpability for it. The Holocaust turned Hecht into a militant proponent for the Jewish state, to the point where his advocacy for Jewish paramilitary action against the British troops in Palestine led to a boycott of his work in Great Britain and to his being the first Jew in 500 years to be denounced in the House of Commons.

Though theaters dedicated solely to Jewish culture seem to be on the wane in the United States, Chack notes that there is widespread interest in Jewish themes in more mainstream theaters, including the off-Broadway success of National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene’s Yiddish-language version of Fiddler on the Roof and Paula Vogel’s 2015 play Indecent (produced by Victory Gardens last fall), based on Sholem Asch’s The God of Vengeance. “In the old Yiddish theater, they were bringing together social justice themes and things that had to do with workers’ rights and all these other things that came out of labor Zionist movements and the old socialist movements that Jews helped to start here in this country. And then we got kind of stuck, starting in the 50s, with this romanticized sentimental version of Yiddish theater, which has sort of carried over to today. But I think the younger people are seeing the potential.”

Chack’s vision for Teatron is that it becomes “a real laboratory, a theater exploration environment to work with artists that are interested in developing their work and themselves in their identity and connection to Jewish arts and culture.”  v