If there’s anything Jews love, it’s a chance to debate philosophy. (In fact, somebody somewhere is disputing that statement right now.) But non-Jews like it just as much when you turn them loose on a topic near their hearts, and that’s what Susan Cherin Gundersheim does.
“We have a roomful of theater professionals, board chairs and arts enthusiasts, all opinionated and passionate, people who never have that kind of dialogue with others like themselves,” she says. “That’s one of my favorite nights of the year.”
She’s talking about the annual Charlotte meeting for the Jewish Plays Project. The New York office of the JPP winnows a field of 200 submissions and sends its top 10 to cities around America. Two dozen Charlotteans, Jews and non-Jews, read them and gather for one night to argue about which three should get staged readings here.
One of those three then receives the top local prize, a full professional production at Levine Jewish Community Center — the only such production among the seven participating cities, as far as Gundersheim knows. Cary Gitter’s “The Sabbath Girl” will run Nov. 9-10.
“People know about Jewish books, Jewish music, Jewish movies,” says Gundersheim, director of cultural arts for the JCC. “But what is Jewish theater, beyond ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ and ‘The Diary of Anne Frank’? This contest helps audiences answer that question.”
Gitter’s answer connects Seth, a restaurant owner who has stepped away from his home synagogue but not his faith, with Angie, his new Italian-American neighbor. The original title, “The Shabbos Goy,” refers to the ancient tradition of having non-Jews drive cars, light stoves and do other things forbidden to orthodox Jews on the Sabbath. Angie, a successful art dealer, helps Seth one evening and finds herself drawn to him and his culture. This startles her grandmother and worries Seth’s sister, who’s uncomfortable with interfaith marriages.
Gundersheim found director Sarah Provencal, who isn’t Jewish, through Karina Caporino, who’ll play Angie. Provencal, who teaches theater at Winthrop University and recently directed “The Wolves” for Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte, found herself in Angie’s shoes.
“I asked Susan a lot of questions and read online about Jewish beliefs,” she says. “How does feminism fit into modern Jewish thought? Angie’s a strong presence, especially after Cary’s rewrites gave her character more agency. She’s willing to go after Seth when she’s not welcomed with open arms.
“It’s a classic romantic comedy about people (different from) each other. Seth believes in his faith, so he has a question: How does he follow his heart and still follow his soul?”
Gitter’s play survived a strange selection process at the staged readings of the three finalists: The audience voted after seeing only 20-minute excerpts from each, usually chosen by the authors. David Winitsky, founder and director of the Jewish Plays Project, came down to host the event and tell voters what to expect.
The other two Charlotte finalists this year were Ali Viterbi’s “In Every Generation,” which went on to win the national prize from the JPP, and Megan Pope’s “Dox Modern Middle.” (The playwrights aren’t always Jewish, either.) The first is about a family that celebrates Passover across four millennia, well into the future; the second is about a young lesbian sent by her orthodox family to “heal” herself in Israel, where drag queens befriend her.
“We score the plays on Jewish content, how they’d fit into life in Charlotte, and dramatic value,” Gundersheim explains. “Every year about two of the 10 are incredibly edgy, and we ask ourselves, ‘Do we want to push the boundaries?’ The majority of our audience is 55 and up.”
She hopes to change that as the JCC’s drama offerings, known collectively as JStage, become more sophisticated. Like the annual Charlotte Jewish Film Festival, which she also oversees, JStage is designed to reach people outside the faith as well as in.
Says Gundersheim, “JStage has a history of being more of a community theater geared to children and families. This contest is a step toward being a destination for adults. We want to give you a value-added experience, where you can meet a playwright and be part of a talkback. (Gitter will attend the Saturday night performance.)
“We did the first production anywhere of ‘Bar Mitzvah Boy,’ the 2017 winner, the first production of ‘Summer Night, With Unicorn’ in 2018, and this is only the second of ‘Sabbath Girl.’ We get actors and directors who’ve worked at other companies around the city, and we pay them – not a living wage, but enough to make it a professional production. We are taking baby steps toward building an audience for contemporary theater.”
“The Sabbath Girl”
When: 2 and 7 p.m. Nov. 9 and 2 p.m. Nov. 10.
Where: Gorelick Hall, Levine Jewish Community Center, 5007 Providence Rd.
Running time: Roughly 75 minutes with no intermission.
Details: 704-366-5007 or charlottejcc.org.
This story is part of an Observer underwriting project with the Thrive Campaign for the Arts, supporting arts journalism in Charlotte.
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