Jews are called upon to bring light to the world,” Isaac Pearl explains to his friend Katie Martin, in Buffy Sedlachek’s Hanukkah Lights In The Big Sky. “Right now we need as much light as we can get.”
Sedlachek’s play is this year’s family-friendly Hanukkah show at the Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company, and Barbara Brooks, the MJTC artistic director, chose this for a reason.
“The play tells the remarkable story of a community coming together to take a stand against racism,” Brooks wrote in the program. “With the tremendous increase in racist activity and horrific exhibitions of hate, this play is so important.”
The show is set in Billings, Montana, in 1993, and is based on the true story of a brick that was thrown through the window of a young child’s bedroom because of the menorah that he had on his window sill. That moment occurred as the residents of Billings faced a rising tide of white supremacy.
Isaac Pearl’s window was the one broken. His mother Tammie, and Katie’s mother, Lori, started a movement that became “Not In Our Town,” where people all off faiths and background banded together against the bullying tactics of groups like Northwest United Skinheads, Ku Klux Klan, and Aryan Nation.
This is the third time that MJTC has put this show on, which Brooks had commissioned in 2004 (it also was showed in 2012). Shelli Place, who is directing this show for the first time, said she didn’t see the show either of the first two times it was performed, so she is able to put her own perspective on the show.
“When I read a play the very first time, I always have a pencil in my hand, and I write down my gut instincts as I go through the entire play,” she said. “I also treat the kids as professional actors. I don’t baby them. They get the same amount of attention and the same amount of direction. And with the way that I talked to actors, I talked to them just the same and they respond beautifully.”
That, they did. Liam Beck-O’Sullivan and Natty Woods played the leading children in the show. The best friends on stage had terrific chemistry, with the requisite awkwardness that you’d expect from pre-teen friends of opposite genders.
The adults in the show also do brilliantly, led by Lee H. Adams. He plays eight different characters in the show and is very much the angel on Isaac’s shoulder. Amanda Cate Fuller plays Tammie, and excellently portrays the fears that people often still have, while trying to put on a brave face for her son. Elizabeth Efteland rounds out the cast – all of whom made their MJTC debut – as Katie’s mom Lori, who demonstrates remarkable allegiance with Tammie and Isaac – regardless of the religious differences.
Importantly, on the opening morning of the show’s run, there were elementary school kids from Friends School of Minnesota and St. Vincent de Paul in St. Paul. As happens with the Hannukah shows, they are part of the play. Adams, when playing the teacher Mr. Brown, addresses the kids like they are in his class – and the audience played to it. It was clear – at least from that group – that the lessons taught weren’t over their heads at all.
The show addresses big issues that, we as Jews, have been staring down for centuries. And it addresses them in a way that is accessible, interesting, and easy-to-follow. But here in 21st century Minnesota, we should be so lucky to have the allies that Isaac and Tammie had in their Billings neighbors 28 years ago.
‘Hannukah Lights in the Big Sky’ runs through Dec. 22 at the Highland Park Community Center (1978 Ford Parkway, St. Paul). On Dec. 15, TC Jewfolk and PJ Library have tickets available for a discounted price, and a meet-and-greet with actors after the show. Click here for more information.