Q&A With Pulitzer-Nominated Playwright David Feldshuh

David Feldshuh, Ph.D., M.D., is the author of Miss Evers’ Boys, which received the New American Play Award, was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, and, after being made into an HBO movie, won five Emmy Awards. His new play, Dancing with Giants, is opening February 8 at the Illusion Theater, with the author’s sister, well-known actress Tovah Feldshuh, playing one of the roles. We were able to catch up with him before opening night to talk about the development of this new play, his Minnesota ties, and the art of plays based on historical fiction.

TCJ: To most Americans, at least those who are not scholars of boxing, World War II, or the Shoah, Max Schmeling is known (if he is known at all) as a footnote to the Joe Louis story. Joe Jacobs, Schmeling’s American manager, is then a footnote to a footnote. The focus for most people has been the historical and political implications of the famous fights between Louis and Schmeling. You bring in Jacobs and his relationship with Schmeling (and Louis?) at the center of your play. This is a roundabout way of asking: Why this approach? What drew you to write about the friendship that developed between and among these three men, and, in particular, what interested you about the relationship between Schmeling and Jacobs?

Feldshuh: First: this is historical fiction based on actual events, so things are conflated; This is my script note at the beginning of the script:

“Although Dancing with Giants uses historical details in its plot, characters, and dialogue, and is inspired by actual events, it’s a work of fiction.”

What’s “real:” the people; the fights; Jacobs’ “cigar salute;” Jacobs making Max the “low blow champion” by yelling at the ref and helping Max win the heavyweight championship of the world on a foul; Goebbels’ opposition to Jacobs and Louis; the friendship between Jacobs and Schmeling and Schmeling and Louis; the omnipresence of Jacobs in the fight scene in the 1920s and 30s in New York City; Mike Jacobs (no relation to Joe Jacobs) was Joe Louis’s manager; and other details, quotes, etc.

What interests me are two things: people caught in the middle of big events, and “difference.” All four of these men are very different in all kinds of ways. I created a friendship among three very different men and, as the press points out, a character determined for all kinds of reasons to destroy it. (Goebbels is obviously “all things Nazi,” but, in reality, also the world’s first modern propagandist of influence and stature.)

Schmeling and Jacobs were remarkably, almost hilariously, different. The cautious German, walking a tightrope, staring carefully into the future. As opposed to the impulsive wheeler-dealer Jacobs: boisterous, impish, gesticulating. As Schmeling said: “How often he made us laugh with his constant state of excitement.”

I also find the possibility of a triangular relationship engaging. So much has been written and filmed about Louis, and about Louis and Schmeling. I wanted to revisit Louis, whose stillness and silence masked something deeper. If you watch documentaries, this isn’t the understanding of Louis by many. But it’s what I wanted him to contribute to this triangle. A presence that had a simple wisdom to it, at times.

The racial implications of the Louis/Schmeling fights are well known. Schmeling was, of course, Goebbels’ poster boy for Aryan racial superiority, and he used Schmeling’s triumph over Louis in the 1936 fight to advance that ideology. By adding the story of Jacobs, who was Jewish, are you exploring a three-way intersection between American racism, Nazi racial ideology, and anti-Semitism? Was it challenging to maintain the dynamics among those themes in the context of your drama?

Honestly, I try to write people working toward personal goals and out of deep need. Everything you comment on is there most explicitly in Goebbels, who sounds frighteningly contemporary. Max [Schmeling] needs to survive; Yussel [Joe Jacobs was also known as “Yussel the Muscle”] needs to keep his world safe; Joe [Louis] needs to honor his mother and his people. Close to home stuff. But yes, what you say is all there because it was there, and I hope, credibly, in the play through the characters’ immediate interactions.

You once said that you saw Eunice Rivers, on whom the character of Miss Evers is based, as a tragic figure. Is there a tragic figure (or figures) in Dancing with Giants? And, if so, how does he/they measure up to Miss Evers?

Yussel is tragic in a much more modest way. He’s blind. Like Orestes. He thinks he can dance with giants and not get stepped on, or get his family stepped on. He’s the impulsive optimist with the house burning around him.

You primarily write historical drama. You spoke about Miss Evers’ Boys in relation to the problem of individuals being constrained by the limitations of their moment, and unable to see beyond their immediate horizons. I think you suggested that the only response or solution is to cultivate moral insight. Is that problematic relevant to the new play?

For better or worse, this is a different kind of play, with a very different kind of Quixotic character. He seeks trouble; it doesn’t come to him. Maybe that’s the difference between Evers and Yussel. Yussel brings the house down on himself. By the way, the real Yussel died at 43. That was a primary dramatic question: Imagine this man died at 43 — why? What’s the story that led to that premature death? Historically, it was probably genetics. But theatrically, it is having danced with giants.

How did you research this play? Were you able, for instance, to find out much about how Schmeling perceived his actions and behavior? He didn’t fire Jacobs, but neither did he speak out against Nazi violence or their persecution of Jews. Some sources claim that he enjoyed the attention and flattery of Goebbels and Hitler. Did he rationalize his actions? Do you see him as a collaborator?

I did tons of research. I loved it and it was continually fascinating. For example: who would dream that Goebbels’ real title was: Reichsminister of Propaganda and Enlightenment! There are all kinds of historical facts that may or may not fit the play. Some say that Schmeling dumped Jacobs. What you say about Schmeling as a collaborator is not my take on this play. It has some justification. Schmeling hid two Jewish boys and he would have been shot for it if he were caught. Also, Schmeling refused to lie for Goebbels after Goebbels pushed Schmeling into the paratroopers (after Max lost to Louis in ’38) and directed him to say that the British created a massacre. Schmeling was a survivor who sold Coca-Cola after the war. Not a saint. Not a devil. survivor, used by the Nazis and using the Nazis. Not a pure moral lesson by any means.

You’ve said that this isn’t a Holocaust play. That said, the fourth character is Joseph Goebbels, and that made me wonder whether you encountered any challenges regarding representation and the problematic issue of embodiment. How does one represent such an evil person without risking allegory or melodrama on one hand, and, on the other hand, diminishing the extremity of the evil?

Another great question. That is the challenge. This play takes place before WWII and the Holocaust. Many said that Goebbels, as a personality, was charming. I think he was a nasty SOB who, in the end, killed his own children, but that’s not where the play starts. Like the doctor in Miss Evers’ Boys, Goebbels must be seductive, even fun. And then…the devil. So you will see the humor. The effort is to avoid presenting the character as “here’s this villain, hate him,” at the beginning of the play. Then, as he is crossed, he becomes “GOEBBELS” as we know him.

Your career — your trajectory – is fascinating. You started out as an actor at the Guthrie, then you turned to directing, and eventually, you became the Associate Director of the theater under Tyrone Guthrie. And, do I have this right?: You decided to do a Ph.D. in theater at the University of Minnesota and your dissertation looked at psycho-therapeutic approaches to acting — is that correct? And from there, you went to medical school. Was there something in your experience as a director or working with actors that prompted this movement to healing?

My Ph.D. research into creativity and actor training led me back to medicine and the possibility of become a psychiatrist. After attending medical school and considering possibilities, I realized that I could continue finding “therapeutic” lessons in my theater work, and decided to balance my life with a completely different type of specialty, emergency medicine. I completed one of America’s great emergency medicine residencies, at Hennepin County Medical Center. So I was more than fortunate, blessed, to be able to experience two magnificent Minnesota institutions, the Guthrie Theater and HCMC. Add to that my training at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, and you have the three primary influences in my life to this day.

You have spoken elsewhere about the overlap – the similarities between directing and practicing emergency medicine – that both professions involve a degree of improvisation and both involve having to respond to changing circumstances, and often facing hard decisions with limited information. Did practicing medicine change or alter your perception of human beings and human interaction – or even of the tragic?

Emergency medicine reminds you daily that life is unpredictable. You go out with your business papers to work never realizing that an event may result in you never dong that again. The experience of these events anchored me, for better or worse, in the omnipresent possibility of life ending, or at least being altered drastically. For me, through some circuitous meandering, this leads to Yussel and his optimism. It’s not a new lesson, of course. “Every day is a new day.” That kind of thing. But it becomes very much more than a cliché when you work emergency medicine. You also see the best and worst in people. Their grief and moments of overwhelming thankfulness. Emergency medicine is very difficult because it is at the front line of everything society would prefer not to see. But it’s also an opportunity to appreciate human resiliency and, at times, kindness.

Where is home now?

Ithaca, N.Y. I teach at Cornell University. I have been there for 34 years as a Professor of Theater. I value teaching immensely and have received Cornell’s highest teaching award. I consider my students a legacy of my work. Some have achieved recognition in theater or film (e.g., director Sam Gold). Many have used their work in theater and the lessons of that work to enrich their lives.

May I ask about your Jewish background? You grew up in a Jewish household — where? Would you describe your upbringing as culturally Jewish or spiritually Jewish or both? Did you have a Bar Mitzvah, for instance?

I was raised in the Bronx until I was 9. Then we moved to the suburbs outside of New York City. Yankee Stadium was an important memory, and finds its way into Dancing with Giants. I was raised Conservative. Aunts and grandparents lived in the same apartment house. It was definitely a different time, a time that gave a child a sense of connection with grandparents who were immigrants and parents who lived through the Depression. Again, there are elements of this in my writing. Yes, I was Bar Mitzvahed, in White Plains, N.Y., Temple Israel. My children were also Bar Mitzvahed. They are participating in this project [the show includes a song by David’s son, Noah, and David’s other son, Zach, contributed cartoons that are projected onstage].

Do you consider yourself a “Jewish playwright”? Or, if you prefer, do you find that your Jewish background or Jewish values inform your work? Your life? Your relationships?

No, I don’t consider myself a Jewish playwright. As a matter of fact, I don’t label myself a playwright, although I write plays. I like Tyrone Guthrie’s notion of “a worker in the theater.” Like a carpenter, a craftsperson attempting to master a skill set, craft and, finally, an art form. My primary training and experience are as a director and actor. What I bring to writing plays is a love of how the theater can “work” to engage an audience in a story: how rhythm, contrast, character traits, the sound of language, etc., can move an idea to words, then to acts, then to a palpable experience that, at its best, can share insights about being human and living life so it feels well lived.

Dancing with Giants, written and directed by David Feldshuh, is performing at the Illusion Theater, 528 Hennepin Ave. S., Minneapolis, through Feb. 24. Tickets available by calling 612-339-4944, or by visiting illusiontheater.org.