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August 10, 2006

Play’s Gay Theme Reflects Background of Creator

http://www.jewishjournal.com/arts/article/plays_gay_theme_reflects_background_of_creator_20060811

"We have always existed, even though we've been hidden from history. The friends we met in childhood, it turns out they were gay. We gravitate to one another."

So speaks playwright Zsa Zsa Gershick when asked why her four principal characters are all gay or sexually experimental in her play, "Bluebonnet Court," at the Hudson Mainstage Theater.

Set in 1944 in Austin, Texas, the play features Helen (nicely played by Leslie Cohen), a wisecracking journalist right out of "The Front Page" or a 1940s Warner Bros. movie. Her first line is: "Thanks for the tip, doll."

One can imagine her knocking back shots with William Bendix or Dane Clark in a World War II movie. Instead, she ends up sharing her bottle of Jim Beam with a closeted ex-GI (a fine Jonathan Nail) who, like Brick in "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," can't satisfy his woman and keeps thinking about a long-lost male friend. Then, there's Orla Mae, a young black servant who speaks in a Southern black idiom but is by no means a stereotype. A devoted bookworm with a green thumb, Orla Mae, in a nuanced turn by Dalila Ali Rajah, shows an appreciation for nature and beauty, extolling cicadas and scorpions -- even giving the Latin name for the latter -- and is not afraid to assert herself with a white woman. Finally, there is Lila Jean (portrayed with compassion by Jamey Hood), who is married to the ex-GI and transfixed by movie magazines, with their gossip about soirees and rumored marriages. A very feminine belle, she is nonetheless more than a little interested in Sapphic matters.

If movies are on the mind of Lila Jean, it's no wonder, because Helen is heading out to Hollywood to be an MGM contract writer.

The 46-year-old Gershick has done quite a bit of writing, as well. The first staff reporter at the Texas Triangle, a pioneering gay newspaper, Gershick was also a stringer at Newsweek and wrote for the Daily Journal chain.

Born in the Bay Area, Gershick got her start in journalism as a private in the U.S. Army Reserve at Ft. Jackson in South Carolina. There, she trained as a broadcast reporter at the Army's Defense Information School.

Why would a Jewish lesbian join the military?

"It was the nastiest thing a nice Jewish girl could do and completely unexpected."

Yet there was another aspect, too, she says. "World War II and the Depression were a very seminal period" for her parents. "Their cultural references from movies and music were from that period and were central to the stories they told me."

Given that her play takes place in World War II, Gershick not surprisingly intersperses it with radio segments that carry the tinge of the Bible Belt -- like the Christian Crusader or the Homeland Defender -- an eerie echo of our current Homeland Security Department.

Although "Bluebonnet Court," directed by Kelly Ann Ford (who most recently staged "The Birds: A Tail of Ornithic Proportions"), deals with anti-Semitism and racism in the South, Gershick says that she did not encounter any prejudice when she was stationed in South Carolina.

"I was kind of undercover," she says, admitting that she placed "no preference" on her dog tag, rather than reveal that she was Jewish. But with a surname like Gershick, she couldn't have fooled too many people.

She does remember that some of the male soldiers were not too happy about having to serve with women. The Women's Army Corps was disbanded not long before she joined the reserves in the late 1970s, and she ended up in one of the first units in which men and women -- gay and straight -- served together.

Gershick later got a bachelor's degree from Antioch College and two graduate degrees from USC, a master's in nonfiction writing and a master of fine arts in playwriting. She has also written about lesbians in the armed forces in her book, "Secret Service: Untold Stories of Lesbians in the Military," a compilation of oral histories from all branches of the service.

Her earlier book, "Gay Old Girls," documented the history of lesbians in the past century, telling the story of women who had come of age in the 1920s, '30s and '40s, living secret lives even in major cities like Chicago, New York and Los Angeles.

Gershick, too, has come of age. She began "Bluebonnet Court" in 2001, workshopped it for four years and only now has brought it to the stage. Why the wait? The playwright chuckles, "As Mark Twain once said, 'Only a genius or an idiot rushes into print.'"

"Bluebonnet Court" runs through Aug. 27 at the Hudson Mainstage Theater, 6539 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood, (323) 960-7721. Thursday-Saturday, 8 p.m.; Sunday, 3 p.m.

Jonathan Nail (as Roy Glenn) and Leslie Cohen (as Helen Burke, formerly Berkowitz) in "Bluebonnet Court."

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