Stranger, a first-time production at the Minnesota Fringe Festival, is promoted as “memory, history, text and ritual entangle three strangers in a sprawling, modern epic, summoning the immense joy, messiness and struggle of being seen at the intersection of race and faith as Jews of Color.”
The production presents snapshots of individual moments in the lives of various types of Jews of Color: A biracial woman born into Judaism, an African-American man whose family converted to Judaism when he was a child, and a Brazilian woman, descendant from European Jews who hid the fact that they were Jewish for many years. The characters are portrayed, respectively, by Gabrielle Dominique, Ricardo Beaird and Fernanda Badeo.
Stranger, the creation of Erika Levy and Morgan Holmes, gives a realistic, but interpretative glimpse into the struggles some Jews of Color have with being recognized by or accepted by others as really being Jewish, as they face a barrage of questions about skin color, “kinky curly” hair, and conversion – even to those who did not convert.
One storyline shows how a young Jewish child can feel alone on the school yard when friends don’t understand why she doesn’t eat ham, or has something called matzah in her lunch and, gasp, no Easter candy!
The idea of being alone — and different — in society, is replayed throughout the play. Even as Jews of Color interact with other Jews or interact with other Jews of Color, there is still a sense of being alone, at times, or seen as “confusing” or “unusual.”
The characters are reminded and uplifted by their family: “God chose you and set you apart” and “You are a blessing and some people will try to say things to take that away from you.” But there is a need to remain strong like Ephraim and Manasseh and Sarah and Rachel and Rebecca and Leah. Or like Martin and Malcolm and Marvin and Barack. Like Oprah and Beyonce and Lizzo and Harriet and Sojourner.
The creators spoke with TC Jewfolk about how they chose to write this play because of their interests in how people use faith and rituals to find meaning in their lives and showcasing the lives of Jews of Color was another way to explore Jewish identity on stage.
“Our specific interest for the story came from reading first-person narratives on blogs from Jews of Color about experiencing an intersection of identities,” Holmes said. “We were excited to amplify voices in our local community. For me personally, I have valued listening to the women we interviewed and to the actors in our cast who shared their stories and were open with us.”
“We wanted to portray struggle, but ultimately we wanted to portray freedom and joy with regards to identity. Personally, I feel connected with how the characters find community in the face of seemingly endless challenges,” said Levy, who added she has been very involved in the Jewish community since moving to Minnesota four years ago. “Non-Jewish audience members may not know what all the rituals are, but I hope they will draw from the play not only a greater understanding of Judaism as a religion, but also of the symbolism and the comfort that people take in professing their faith.”
“While the play portrays Jews of Color negotiating their baggage and identity specifically, I hope that everyone can reflect on the journey the characters take and see how they [the audience] can enact the same conclusions in their own lives,” said Holmes. “I’d love everyone to take away that listening and building a genuine connection with others in your community is the only way to progress.”
Stranger, presented by the Perspectives Theater Company, is being performed on the Arena stage in the Rarig Center, 330 21st Avenue S, at the University of Minnesota. Remaining show times are: 10 p.m Friday, Aug. 11; 1 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 12.
Author Sheree R. Curry is an award-winning journalist and Jew of Color. She has written extensively about issues regarding the intersection of race and religion. She sits on the TC Jewfolk board.