As her mother’s yahrzeit approaches, a middle-aged woman undergoes a crisis of the soul in the play “Heart Song,” currently at The Fountain Theatre in Hollywood. The woman, Rochelle (Pamela Dunlap), then joins a flamenco class and experiences the transformative power of that dance form. Playwright Stephen Sachs, who co-founded the theater with Deborah Lawlor, said that, due to Lawlor’s love for the dance, the Fountain has become the foremost presenter of flamenco in Los Angeles.
“The idea came to me,” Sachs explained, “that the writing of a play where a character takes a flamenco class and is changed by it would be a really good vehicle through which to tell the story, because the audience shares the experience with our lead character and enters the new world of flamenco with her.”
Sachs described the character of Rochelle as someone disconnected from her Judaism, her culture, her religion, her faith and her God.
“In that first scene, she talks about having forgotten the words to the Kaddish, which is something that she has known ever since she was a little girl, but now she can’t remember the words, and so she’s lost. She’s mourning the loss of her mother and struggling with some really deep philosophical questions, not only about grief and loss, but about the meaning of life and what’s our purpose.”
Rochelle’s turmoil was triggered when she went through a closet after her mother’s death and found a box with a girl’s striped dress from the concentration camp at Birkenau. At first she wasn’t sure who owned the dress.
“I think she suspected it was her mother,” Sachs said, “but, because her mother never talked about it, it was an issue that was never spoken in the home, and she never shared her true feelings.
Sachs continued, “Her mother was unable to share her pain with her own daughter.”
The challenging relationship that Rochelle had with her mother is something with which Dunlap can identify. Like Rochelle’s mother, her own mother was not very forthcoming.
“Of course, my mother was not harboring the gravity of a secret like Rochelle’s mother was hiding. Actually, my mother said to me, the week of her death, ‘There is something I have never told you. I have to tell you.’ And she was not well. She was frail, and she was agitated and her breath was labored, and I got concerned. I calmed her down and said, ‘Tell me tomorrow. We can talk about it later. You don’t have to tell me now.’ She died. And I don’t know what that secret was.”
Dunlap added, “Most of us have secrets; most of us have big secrets, and we take those secrets to the grave with us, like Rochelle’s mother did.”
Rochelle’s mother also took her true name to the grave. After discovering the concentration camp uniform, Rochelle found out that her mother was born with a Polish name that she had changed. She’s now beside herself because she feels the name on the gravestone is wrong.
When she joins the flamenco group, Rochelle learns from its leader, a Gypsy named Katarina (Maria Bermudez, who is also the play’s choreographer), that there is a tradition of having two names in Gypsy culture. One name is private and known only to the Gypsy community, and the other is the name used in the outside world.
“I just thought that was a really interesting idea and metaphor to use in the play too,” Sachs remarked.
Rochelle also learns about the interconnectedness of the four cultures represented in the group; besides her Judaism and Katarina’s Gypsy roots, there is the Japanese heritage of Tina (Tamlyn Tomita), the masseuse who introduced Rochelle to flamenco, and the African-American culture of Daloris (Juanita Jennings), who befriends Rochelle.
As Katarina illuminates the mysteries of flamenco, the dance becomes the catalyst for revealing the deep-seated pain born of suffering that is shared by all the cultures. Daloris talks of the blues and its relevance to her culture; Katarina speaks of the Nazi extermination of the Gypsies, much like the extermination of the Jews; Tina expounds on the internment camps in which the Japanese-Americans were held during World War II.
“Too often what we do, and that’s a major theme, we carry other people’s stories,” director Shirley Jo Finney stated, “and part of the letting go is to create our own story.
“I think that’s one of the things each of those ladies, all of those ladies, in fact, were having to reconcile.”
According to Gypsy tradition, flamenco leads the dancer to reach into the farthest recesses of the soul to release the pain residing there, and, ultimately, Rochelle does find release in an anguished wail, the kind of outcry known to the Gypsies as the cante jondo, a primal scream that “rends the world in two” and is common to all cultures.
“Every culture has a wound,” Finney observed, “and it’s the deep need to be seen, to be nurtured, to feel safe.
“And [for] each of the tribes, when they talked about the tribes within that piece, that’s where the cry comes from. The cry comes from not being acknowledged, and the cry comes from that deep-seated place of self-expression.”
For playwright Sachs, working on this story helped him examine issues of spirituality and mortality that are part of the human experience and are very personal to him.
“The older we get,” he mused, “the more friends we seem to be losing, and it just makes one think about one’s own time, the time that we have left and how we’re spending it. I’m very much wrestling with that, and so the play allowed me to kind of swim in that water for awhile.”
“Heart Song” plays through July 14 at The Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Ave., Los Angeles. For more information, call (323) 663-1525 or visit fountaintheatre.com/perform.