Playwright Karen Hartman, senior artist in residence at the University of Washington, likes to put intimate experiences on stage, because, she says, “the theater is a place that we go to feel less alone.” This sentiment comes through in her play Goldie, Max and Milk, a drama about the charged interactions between a single Jewish lesbian mother, Max, and her Orthodox lactation consultant, Goldie. Recently split from her wife and struggling to nurse her infant, Max falls into Goldie’s care, which develops into a complex relationship between two very different types of mothers and two very different types of Jews.
Jewish in Seattle: The cultures that meet in Goldie, Max and Milk are Jewish and lesbian. Goldie, a lactation nurse and Orthodox Jew, is changed at the end of the play through her relationship with Max. Yet Max appears unchanged culturally or religiously, except perhaps when she calls her ex, Lisa, a bigot for saying, “Remember how those Israeli locksmith bastards ripped us off the first time.” Lisa says as a reminder to Max: “You said Palestinian liberation was a moral imperative.” Max replies to Lisa, “Moral? Imperative? Please discuss.” Are these lines a reflection of what you feel is the sentiment of lesbian culture vs. Jewish culture? Why are they important?
Karen Hartman: Well, “Jewish” and “lesbian” are broad categories, with a lot of overlap. I was married to a woman before I married my husband, so the characters of Max and Lisa come deeply from my own experience. I would say that the cultures that meet in this play are more insulated subsets of those categories — Orthodox Jewish and coastal, left-wing lesbian. Max calls Goldie into her life to teach her to be a mother in a basic way — how to nurse — something that Max assumed would be easy and natural. Max learns much more than that from Goldie, and is deeply changed by her. Similarly, Goldie eventually relies on Max for guidance through a parenting crisis of her own. I wanted to create a story in which mothers learn from each other in a surprising way.
Max comes from Portland and doesn’t know many Jews, and she’s anti-Zionist, which is a pretty typical progressive position. And linked to that, she probably carries low-grade unconscious anti-Semitism, which in my observation is also a typical progressive position, like how she and Lisa would specify that the con job locksmiths were Israeli, whereas they wouldn’t name another ethnic group in the same way. So in that moment, Lisa is calling on that shared perspective, which has shifted for Max somewhat in her new connection with Goldie.
In an essay for Tablet titled “Waiting for Bessie,” for the 70th anniversary of Clifford Odets’s Awake and Sing! you wrote, “At the crux of Awake and Sing! is a premise that people get twisted away from their destinies by the conditions of their lives, that poverty blocks the soul. This suggests a different reality, and even a different aesthetic stance, from the dramas of Odets’s predecessor, Eugene O’Neill. O’Neill’s heroes tend to be romantics or addicts who refuse to allow facts to change who they are, even when that denial leads to madness or death.” To whose reality and aesthetic stance do you feel closer as a playwright? Is Goldie at all related to Odets’s Bessie?
Goldie was inspired by a couple of people. One is an Orthodox matchmaker I met while living in Jerusalem in 1994-1995, an American-born former art dealer from the East Village, who was secretly still sleeping with women. She attended a group I co-organized for lesbian and bisexual women, which was (we believe) the first of its kind in Jerusalem that was bilingual, with meetings conducted in English and Hebrew. We put up signs, and occasionally Orthodox women would come to hang out with us. This woman was hilarious and miserable, and I spent an afternoon at her home office learning about matchmaking in her community.
The other inspiration for Goldie is more literal: Freda Rosenfeld, an Orthodox lactation consultant who works primarily in Park Slope, Brooklyn, an upscale, progressive, queer-friendly neighborhood. I heard about her from friends when my son was born in 2007, and I thought about how funny it would be for someone to enter an intimate moment in a family’s life, all of the unexpressed judgments on both sides. It struck my funny bone. I spoke with Freda too, but in personality Goldie is more bossy and dominant, like the woman I knew in Israel.
I hadn’t thought about Bessie and Goldie, but yes, there is something in the clear-eyed, anti-romantic Jewish immigrant woman. I love that archetype. I find her funny and refreshing.
What do you hope a Jewish audience sees in Max and Goldie’s exchange?
I hope that both characters will feel lovingly familiar, and also challenging. A Jewish theater audience will likely have more in common with Max than with Goldie, yet you can’t really dismiss Goldie. I love both these women so much, and I hope that audiences will connect deeply with both.
In another Tablet essay, “Ambulance Chasing,” you wrote that in high school in San Diego, you saw a taped Broadway revival of Death of a Salesman. And though you didn’t know that Arthur Miller was Jewish, or why in fact the play touched you so deeply, it did remind you of your own family. Was yours a Jewish upbringing in the religious and or traditional sense? Does Judaism influence your work?
I grew up in San Diego and belonged to a Conservative congregation on the Reform end of things. Three of my grandparents were immigrants as children. I had a very 1970s and ’80s California Jewish upbringing, with divorced parents and a healthy mix of Buddhism and the beach. I don’t know if that would seem traditional to you, but I did learn the fundamentals. Judaism influences my work deeply. Sometimes I’m writing about Jewish subjects directly, and sometimes it’s more the head for argument, the inclination toward direct confrontation, which I see as culturally Jewish and useful in the theater.
For years it has been said that TV is the new cinema. If there were to be a new theater, what medium would it be? What do you see as the future for playwrights and theater?
Oh, TV is the future and the present for playwrights. Even in the last five years, with streaming services, TV has said yes to playwrights, whereas the shrinking landscape of new play production says a whole bunch of no. Theater isn’t going anywhere because it’s so fun that people will do it for free. The question is what happens to professional theater, to the institutions. It’s been shown that watching plays makes young people more empathic. We crave that live, shared, focused space. That need is ancient, and it’s not going anywhere. Theater can heal us, if we let it.
Goldie, Max and Milk, Karen Hartman’s hilarious and human drama, explores the relationship between a lesbian single mom and her Orthodox lactation coach. May 22–June 3, $10–$20, Glenn Hughes Penthouse Theatre. drama.washington.edu