“Closely Related Keys,” a new work at the Lounge Theatre in Hollywood by award-winning playwright Wendy Graf, depicts the shock and upheaval that ensues when Julia (Diarra Kilpatrick), an African-American attorney climbing the ladder in a Republican law firm who is involved in an affair with a white colleague (Ted Mattison), learns from her father that she has an Iraqi half-sister. The Iraqi, a devout Muslim named Neyla (Yvonne Huff), wants to come to America to study music. Soon after Neyla unexpectedly shows up at her apartment, Julia, who doesn’t trust Muslims, becomes further outraged when she finds out that this stranger is harboring a secret.
“I think I’m exploring the issues that I always write about, that always interest me,” Graf said, “which are family, heritage, faith, identity and home. Even though this is a story about an African-American family, anybody could be in this story, ’cause the core of the family could be anyone. That’s why it’s not necessarily a black play or an Arab play.”
The playwright herself is Jewish. “I’m observant,” she said. “I’m Reconstructionist, which means the religion is always changing and evolving and can change with the times.”
While she has been recognized for several works with Jewish themes, she is also interested in exploring other cultures. She garnered a 2012 GLAAD (Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) award for her play “No Word in Guyanese for Me,” about a gay Muslim woman torn between her faith and her forbidden sexuality.
“There is a big tradition of Jewish writers and composers writing about racism and xenophobia experienced by other cultures — ‘South Pacific,’ ‘Show Boat,’ ‘Porgy and Bess,’ ” Graf observed. “It goes on and on.”
She recalled that when she put an announcement on Facebook about “No Word in Guyanese for Me,” she heard from the artistic director of the Jewish Theater of Rochester. “He sent me an e-mail and said, ‘This sounds like it’s up my alley. Send me the play.’ I wrote back, ‘No Jews.’ Here’s what he wrote back to me: ‘I take a lesson from some of the great Jewish musical theater writers like Rodgers and Hammerstein, Sondheim, Jonathan Larson, Gershwin, Jerome Kern. They wrote about race and prejudice without talking about being Jewish. As a Jewish theater producer, I need to look for plays about non-Jewish communities that also explore these issues. I seek out stories about the LGBT community, the African-American community, etc., that can resonate with my audience. When these non-Jewish stories are at a Jewish theater, they remind Jews that there are others in similar struggles, and they learn to look at Jewish issues from the outside-in as well as the inside-out.’ ”
Graf said that the idea for “Closely Related Keys” began to germinate during an American Jewish Theater conference.
“Richard Montoya was the keynote speaker, and he spoke at the time about how all the houses in East L.A., over in Boyle Heights where he lives, have mezuzahs in the doorway, and then they’re covered over by coats of paint, and that each coat of paint, and the mezuzah, represents the different immigrant groups that have come in and lived in the house. And I started to think about how we are all like those coats of paint. That was the inspiration for this.”
She added that, on the surface, the sisters seem to be worlds apart. But, as the two interact, Graf said, they realize that they are similar in many ways. For example, they’re both very proud, very fierce, very directed and very self-protective.
“They both have lost their mothers,” Graf explained. “Tthey both have been living, their whole life, the narrative of their father deserting them and abandoning them — and then they find out that maybe that isn’t the case. They both have fear of abandonment. They have a sense of being alone in the world. The Iraqi sister is very cultured and very educated, and I think the journey of the play is to find out how much the two of them have in common rather than how they’re different. They’re ‘Closely Related Keys.’ ”
The play’s title refers to the musical term describing keys that share many common tones.
“One of the main things that I’ve explored, one of the main characteristics,” Graf said, “is that both girls have always had the feeling of being the ‘other.’
“It’s a theme that runs through all my plays, because I find myself always being drawn to the question of people being the ‘other,’ which I think is a common theme in Judaism.”
Graf feels the whole experience of the play challenges the audience. “It challenges their feeling of xenophobia or Islamophobia. Just like the main character has all these preconceived notions of what someone in a head scarf is, or what somebody from Iraq is, I want the audience to experience that as well. What I want is for the audience to sit, and, as the play unfolds, I want them to ask themselves, ‘How much do I hold on to these preconceived stereotypes about “those” people?’
“Every time I write one of these stories about other cultures,” she continued, “the thing that I always come away with is that we’re all just human, and it’s a human story. And I don’t care if you have a head scarf on, or a yarmulke, or a cross around your neck.”
“Closely Related Keys” runs through March 30 at Lounge Theatre, 6201 Santa Monica Blvd. For tickets and more information, call (323) 960-7774.