Twin sisters Alayne Sulkin and Andrea Wenet sit under the lights. A crew operates cameras and mics while documentary filmmaker Ilana Trachtman gently prods them about their relationship. “Our parents divorced after 52 years of marriage,” Alayne says. It’s like a bad Jewish joke: “Were you waiting for the kids to die?”
Inside the sound booth Jon Adam Ross laughs. “That’s going in the show, in case you were wondering,” he whispers. Ross is compiling material for his fourth In[heir]itance Project play in three years, thanks to a commission from the Covenant Foundation. In Seattle, Ross and his team are compiling stories of sister relationships from women for the Rachel/Leah Play. The result is a work in progress — which is more important than the product. “Our goal is to give people access at the process stage,” he says. “Not just as witnesses, but as participants.”
With a commission in hand, Ross set out to make plays based on the patriarchal/matriarchal narratives in cities that usually don’t register on the heat map of Jewish arts: Charleston, Austin, Kansas City, Minneapolis, Seattle. Each production invites community voices to develop a story, and in turn, each unearths deep emotions from the participants. In Charleston, for instance, The Rebecca Play unfolded as Jacob and Esau fighting inside Rebecca’s womb — played by Ross and his friend Darian Dauchan, an African American Broadway actor.
Ross saved the polygamy story for Seattle, but a different angle evolved. There is “an idea,” and there is “the idea,” and Ross and his artistic director, Chantal Pavageaux, let them swirl around until one solidifies.
“I asked people at the study session what their preconceived notions about Rachel and Leah were,” he says. “A lot of it focused on the rivalry and conflict, but there is some stuff in the Bible that says they speak together with one voice. We know that Jacob loves Rachel, but we don’t know that Rachel loves Jacob. Was Rachel at Leah’s wedding? Did they know ahead of time that this switch was going to happen? What did it mean to be a woman back then, when it was your job to have children?” The result will interweave stories from multiple pairs of sisters, whose recorded interviews will form a modern midrash on the Biblical story.
Seattle’s is the first performance to go up only at a Jewish location, but, like most Jewish artists, Ross emphasizes that his content isn’t just Jewish. “A good artist can only succeed if their content is specific and universal at the same time,” he says. “The content is Biblical: that’s universal. The process is Jewish, because it’s very Talmudic.”