Jewish Journal


January 15, 2004

L.A. Tour Staged With Heart, History


It is a somewhat surrealistic scene taking place in the kitchen of the Greenway Court Theater in the Fairfax District. One man is narrating a story of the Los Angeles eruv (Shabbat boundary), which in his narration is both a religious frontier and a metaphorical border in which to tell his story. Around him are two women and a man acting as malachim (angels or messengers) and, like an updated Greek chorus, they undulate their bodies in acknowledgement of what he is saying, miming his words in dreamy motions.

In the next room, four actors are going through a scene in which a Russian Jewish mother snubs her son's wife by not eating her "fackacteh" chopped liver because it was not kosher enough. Tracy Young, the director, is blocking them, advising them to move about the stage to keep the action fresh. The woman playing the mother is questioning Tracy about her character's resentment of her son.

That is how rehearsal time goes for the "Center of the Star, A Jewish Tour of Los Angeles," a new play by Yehuda Hyman that is the latest project of the Cornerstone Theater Company (CTC) and Greenway Arts Alliance.

The CTC is an 18-year-old, multiethnic ensemble theater company that partners with community groups to produce original plays that explore different ethnic groupings in Los Angeles. This time they are working the Jewish community, partnering with the University of Judaism (UJ), the National Foundation for Jewish Culture, the Center for Jewish Culture and Creativity, Workmen's Ciricle, Temple Emanuel, Emanuel Arts Center, Adat Ari El, the Bureau of Jewish Education and the Skirball Cultural Center for "Center of the Star," which will run for five weeks. In deference to the Jews involved in the production, Cornerstone is not rehearsing or performing the play on Friday nights.

"Ultimately, it's about building bridges between diverse communities," said Lee Lawlor, Cornerstone's communications director. "We want to hear people's stories. We want to hear what is special about being Jewish that makes it different to other communities, what are the traditions and what is the history of the community. Generally we spend close to a year identifying strategic partners within the community, we meet with them and based on those meetings the playwright will craft a play. We try to have either the playwright or the director be from within the community."

"This is not about imposing a play on a group of people, but trying to have that play grow out of a group of people," she continued.

To write "Center of The Star," a sprawling history of the Jewish community in Los Angeles and a personal narrative of one family's place in it, Hyman conducted 48 private interviews with all sorts of Jews -- rabbis, secular Jews, Jews of different ethnicities. He also did 18 group interviews, or in Cornerstone theater parlance, "story circles," with, among others, Jews at Beit T'Shuva (a Jewish treatment center), Iraqi Jews, Russian Jews, Persian Jews, Israelis in Los Angeles, rabbinic interns at the UJ, members of a Conservative synagogue in the Valley and a Reform temple in Beverly Hills.

"I love hearing people's stories," Hyman said. "[In the story circles] I would get into questions of faith, asking tough questions about the concept of the Chosen People, and what does that mean, and when they had experiences when they felt their faith was tested. I got a wide variety of responses -- everything from heart-rending stories to people telling me that Judaism is not about faith but about doing a certain set of things we do everything, to people who had mystical experiences with the religion."

From those interviews, and his own research into the history of the Jewish community in the city, Hyman wrote a multilayered, metaphysical play that uses 32 actors to follow the migratory trends of Jews in Los Angeles.

In the play, Jackie, a successful photographer, goes on a tour of Los Angeles, which sparks memories of her grandmother from Boyle Heights, her Fairfax childhood, her teenage yearnings in Brentwood and the tragedy that led to her exodus from the city.

"The play is very specifically Los Angeles in its geography and its essence and its energy and rhythm," said Hyman. "The Pacific Ocean plays a huge role in the play -- it's the ocean as geography, and it is also the ocean as mikvah [Jewish ritual bath]."

Hyman said that he is sad that his play could not tell everyone's stories, but he hopes that those who watch the play will have a sense of pride about the expansiveness of the Los Angeles Jewish community. He said that he received the inspiration for the play from the Star of David.

"If you look at the Star of David, you will see two interesting triangles: one pointing upward to heaven, and the other downward," he said. "According to the mystic Gershom Sholem, we humans exist in that crossroads where the two stars intersect. 'Center of the Star' is a tour of that junction and the Jewish struggle to understand it, live in it and celebrate it."

"Center of the Star: A Jewish Tour of Los Angeles" will be playing at the Greenway Court Theater, 544 N. Fairfax Ave., Los Angeles, Jan. 29-Feb. 29. For tickets call (323) 655-7679 ext. 100, or go to www.cornerstonetheater.org .

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