April 12, 2011
At Beit T’Shuvah, they sing a song of ‘Freedom’
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Cassandra Kaminski, who plays Shayna on the meeting side of the stage, says the notion that she can make an impact on someone has expanded from “Freedom Song” to her relationship with her own family.
Kaminski, 28, was addicted to drugs and crime from the age of 13. Last year, she was remanded to live at Beit T’Shuvah for the first year of a three-year sentence for credit card fraud. She is now 14 months clean. When her grandfather died recently, she spent time with her family.
“Having my brother hold me and tell me how much of an asset I am to our family when I’m clean — there’s nothing that can replace that feeling,” she said.
She said, on the eve of going to federal prison to serve her time in June, that she now is confident the internal strength she has developed will carry her through the remainder of her sentence.
“I thought life was going to be harder than it is, but things seem much more manageable now that I’m clean than they were when I was high. It’s just an entirely different world,” Kaminski said.
Borovitz, who helped craft “Freedom Song,” has for years been comparing the addict’s journey to the Passover story — the move from slavery to freedom, the need to get rid of the leavened ego, to accept the outstretched arm to divert the Angel of Death and cross the sea.
When the cast sings in Hebrew, “B’chol Dor Va’Dor,” “In every generation we are all obligated to see ourselves as if …” the shift in meaning is subtle: In addition to the haggadah’s chain of generations, “Freedom Song” is begging all the generations around the seder table to understand each other.
“There is a whole concept in family systems theory that the addict, or the acting-out person, is the identified patient, but the whole family is part of the diseased system, and concentrating on this one person in some way relieves everyone else of having to look at their own stuff,” Rossetto said.
In “Freedom Song,” Grandpa reminds the father, who is trying to keep Shira out of the house, that the haggadah demands we invite all who are hungry to come and eat — strangers in our family, strangers who don’t fit into the conception of a nice Jewish community, strangers within ourselves.
The 10 plagues are not only frogs and boils and pestilence, but also booze, lying, loss of self. Darkness.
The Mah Nishtanah blossoms into many more than four questions — “How could I trash my father’s memory?” an addict intones. “Why wasn’t I good enough to make you stay?” Shira’s little sister asks.
In a climactic number surrounding the word Dayenu, the addicts declare enough to negativity, while the family buckles under the strain, crying, “Enough!”
The script evolved in a collaborative effort kicked off in October 2004, when music producer Craig Taubman approached Borovitz about doing a piece on addiction for his “Let Freedom Sing” festival. Borovitz recruited James Fuchs, a resident and professional musician and composer, and Mirsky, who was a cantorial intern at Beit T’Shuvah at the time. Producer Stu Robinson soon joined the process, gathering and then weaving in personal testimonies from residents.
Yeshaia Blakeney was a too-cool-for-this-Jewish-stuff hip-hop artist, known as Shy B, when Borovitz and Fuchs convinced him to write and perform the raps for “Freedom Song.”
A few years ago, Blakeney found himself in the synagogue in Berkeley where he had grown up, just blocks away from homes he used to rob, with old family friends in the audience. During a break in the show, he slipped offstage, behind the Ark.
“And I’m crying during ‘Freedom Song,’ because I felt the story for the first time. I felt the story of being that lost child and coming home,” he said.
Blakeney, now 29, is a spiritual counselor at Beit T’Shuvah, and he and his wife, whom he met at Beit T’Shuvah, have two daughters.
At Rossetto’s urging, Blakeney is studying to be a rabbi and is in line to succeed Borovitz.
“I was very numb when I got here. I was very cut off from emotions,” Blakeney said. “The process of being around light and hope and spirituality and Judaism and being empowered to transform thaws me out,” he said.
Natalie is still finding that power to transform, and playing Shira will be an important part of it, said Jen Gendel, who played the part for two years, before she moved over to the recovery side — in life and in the show.
“I think when you take on the role of Shira, it teaches you how to open yourself up to other people and to be accepting of change,” Gendel said. “It’s really important to be able to speak and tell your story in front of others and to be your true self.”
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