Now in its 22nd year, Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company is the nation’s longest-running independent Jewish theater. A fixture in both the Twin Cities’ Jewish and theater communities, the theater has received an Ivey award and a host of other accolades. Last week, Barbara Brooks, the theatre’s founder and Producing Artistic Director, sat down with us to discuss the theater’s exciting and provocative 2016-2017 season.
TC Jewfolk: I was struck – and pleased – by the fact that 3 out of the 5 plays you’re producing this season were written by women.
Barbara Brooks: We’re they? I didn’t notice.
TCJ: Iris Bahr, Jenna Zark, and Wendy Kouts. So it wasn’t intentional? That’s so progressive! I guess that’s the ideal, isn’t it? To get to a time where …
BB: Where it just happens?
TCJ: Yes! Now you’ve just wrapped up “Dai” (Enough) and your next show is “Aunt Raini,” by Tom Smith. It’s a play that is concerned with the Leni Riefenstahl controversy, is that right? Riefenstahl was German film director who was solicited by Adolf Hitler to produce Nazi propaganda films.
BB: Well, she would say that she was asked to film what he was doing and that she wanted to be a filmmaker and a director and that there were not a lot of opportunities for women, so she did it.
TCJ: From the press materials, it seems like the play raises interesting questions about art and morality – or whether artistic achievement should ever be weighed against or even outweigh moral obligations. Can you tell us about the story and how the play approaches these themes?
BB: Well, the play is inspired by her life but it’s put in a context in which she’s very ill and she comes to New York to visit her great niece. And the great niece runs an art gallery and she has a boyfriend who is Jewish. And he’s a photographer who shoots Jewish people out of their context. In other words, he might take an Orthodox man and pose him in a setting that is not really appropriate for an Orthodox person. So when he finds out about Leni and the films she’s made, he confronts his girlfriend. But then the play raises the question about the work he’s doing. He’s playing with the reality of Jewishness. And so, in that case, is the content tied to the pictures you’re taking or are you just doing it for art’s sake. Also, is there a moral obligation for Catherine, the great niece, to do something with the original films or by just keeping them out there and let people see them, is she promoting racism? Even though her great aunt was a famous director and film-maker.
TCJ: How did you find the play?
BB: It was an unsolicited admission. I came to me in 2005 and when I saw it I pulled it out because it sounded interesting and I set it aside. But then it got buried because we get a lot of plays. And when I was trying to choose the season I came across it again and read it and I thought, “oh my God!” I had to find the playwright and I called and said, “Okay, sit down. You sent me a play a decade ago!”
TCJ: In February, you’re staging “The Whipping Man” which was produced in 2009 by Penumbra and is by the gay, mixed-race Puerto Rican playwright Mathew Lopez. Can you tell us something about the play and why you chose it?
BB: I think it’s very beautifully written play and it’s set the day after the Civil War in Virginia. And this young Jewish guy comes home to devastation and the destruction of the family plantation and there’s two former slaves there. And it’s the first night of Passover and one of the ex-slaves insists on doing the Seder.
TCJ: Because he was Jewish.
BB: He’s part of the family and he wanted to honor being Jewish. So the play looks at freedom and enslavement and what that does to a person. And it also exposes something I never thought about being from the North – Jewish families as slave holders.
TCJ: You have Sally Wingert directing and she’s usually one of your star actresses.
BB: She’s never directed before.
TCJ: Really? So how did it come to pass that she’s directing for you rather than acting for you this season?
BB: Well, I talked to her and I thought she would be a great director because she’s so smart, she’s worked with so many major directors, and she’s a wonderful actress. I think that directors –if they can get in the head of the actors –it can be a plus. So I talked to her and I said, I think you would be a great director and her first reaction was, “are you kidding me?” And I said no. So we talked about it again over time.
TCJ: “We Are the Levinsons” is the last show of the season. It’s by Wendy Kout and it’s a comedy in which one of the major characters dies in the first act and it features a trans character. Can you tell us something about the writer?
BB: Wendy Kout – this is her third play –but for many years she wrote for TV and film. So I think her writing is very funny but it’s a little different for us. So I brought in Haley Finn to be dramaturge to help flesh out some of the characters. Wendy told me she was really excited because she’d never worked with a dramaturg before.
TCJ: Anything else we should know? Your hopes and plans for the future?
BB: Our audience should keep growing. We haven’t finished with this year but our subscriptions last year were up 24 percent which is against the national trend [subscriptions are going down] and our individual ticket sales are up. So we just want to keep doing what we’re doing.
Minnesota Jewish Theater Company’s next production, “Aunt Raini,” runs from Oct. 29-Nov.20. Order tickets online, or call the box office at 651-647-4315.
This interview was made possible in part with support from the Howard B. & Ruth F. Brin Jewish Arts Endowment, a fund of the Minneapolis Jewish Federation’s Foundation, and Rimon: The Minnesota Jewish Arts Council, an initiative of the Minneapolis Jewish Federation.