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Jewish Journal

Going Underground

A search for identity leads to a monologue about assimilation.

by Naomi Pfefferman

August 17, 2000 | 8:00 pm

Richard Greenberg, author of "Everett Beekin."

Richard Greenberg, author of "Everett Beekin."

The whole time Stacie Chaiken was growing up, nobody discussed her great-grandfather, Louie."My Grandpa Irving refused to speak about his father. Ever," says Chaiken, whose monologue, "Looking for Louie," is premiering at Pacific Resident Theatre.

Louie was just one secret in a family of secrets. Growing up on a Catholic block in Covina, Chaiken hungered to learn about her Jewish immigrant roots. But no one was talking. "Fancy houses. Fancy places. That's all I knew. That's all they wanted me to know," she says. There was nothing about the New York tenements. Nothing about Uncle Al, the gangster. Nothing about Louie."Immigration is the perfect opportunity to re-create yourself, but what is lost is a tremendous richness," Chaiken says.

So she went looking for Louie. At 20, she appalled Grandpa Irving by moving to East First Street on the Lower East Side, the neighborhood he had worked so hard to escape. She donned a pair of 1920s alligator shoes and walked her great-grandfather's old streets.

But eventually, the family shame about Louie caught up with her. "I'm a dark soul with a sordid past I don't even know," she says in the play.

Perhaps that explains why Chaiken converted to Catholicism when she married another Jewish convert. She was wed in "a big Catholic church wedding with all Jews," not all of them pleased, she notes. Every time the priest intoned, "Please stand," her aunt hissed at all the relatives to sit.

Chaiken, the self-professed "uber-Christian," befriended cloistered nuns. She wore Brooks Brothers outfits. But ultimately, Louie called to her. "You can't go underground that deeply and live fully who you are," she explains.

"Looking for Louie" began a couple of years after Chaiken's divorce, when she decided to write a play about the past that her family devalued.

She pestered relatives for information and pored through records at the Immigration Building in lower Manhattan, where she found Louie's old address at 61 Norfolk Street. She discovered a housing project where the tenement had been but imagined her great-grandfather davening at the decrepit old Orthodox shul across the street.

Six weeks before a workshop of "Louie" was to open in New York, Chaiken suddenly heard from her grandfather. Bring a video camera, he said. Grandpa wanted to talk.

Over five days in August 1997, 91-year-old Irving broke his lifelong silence and divulged Louie's secret; the revelation was healing for both grandfather and granddaughter. "It was the release of the shame that had come down through the generations," she says. "Now we can embrace who we are."

"Looking for Louie" is at the Pacific Resident Theatre in Venice through Sept. 10. For information, call (310) 822-8392.

Another assimilation saga is "Everett Beekin," by Pulitzer Prize finalist Richard Greenberg, which follows the process of assimilation of a Jewish family from a tenement apartment on the Lower East Side circa 1946 to Orange County in the late 1990s. The idea for the comedy-drama came to Greenberg as he was ruminating about his own Jewish childhood amid the malls and split-level homes of Long Island, where life was "assimilation as cliché," he says. At South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa Sept. 1-Oct. 8. For information, call (714) 708-5555.

Other Jewish-themed plays in L.A. include:

Deborah Pearl's acclaimed solo cabaret show, "Chick Singers," in which we meet an octet of chanteuses, including an over-the-hill diva, a French blues singer, and a Jewish woman who changes her name to make it in country-western music (she ends up becoming a cantor). At the Cinegrill through Aug. 28, (323) 466-7000.

"Emma & Teddy" by Lonny Chapman, a fictional encounter between the anarchist Emma Goldman and then-vice president Theodore Roosevelt. Opens Aug. 25 at NoHo Arts District in North Hollywood, (818) 769-PLAY.

"Taking Sides," Ronald Harwood's powerful play about the controversial Nazi-era conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler, has just been extended through Oct. 10 at the Odyssey Theatre, (310) 477-2055.

Those who missed David Hare's "Via Dolorosa" on Broadway can catch the one-man show on KCET Aug. 30 at 9:30 p.m. The simply staged piece is drawn from the playwright's experiences and interviews with Jews and Palestinians during his first trip to the Middle East in 1997.

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