This fall, Seattle Public Theater at the Bathhouse at Green Lake opens its 2015–2016 season with a bang and a battle, hopefully confined to the stage.
The night after their grandfather’s funeral, three cousins engage in a vicious brawl over their grandfather’s chai necklace, a surviving keepsake from the Holocaust. Their debates over legacy and entitlement ignite the explosive question “who is a real Jew?” Written by Joshua Harmon, Bad Jews is currently the third-most-produced play in the United States. Critics call it “savagely funny” for its take-no-prisoners repartee. We sat down at Fuel Coffee with SPT’s artistic and education director of 15 years, Shana Bestock, a Jewish Seattle native and the play’s director, to discuss her provocative choice to stage Bad Jews, and to ask the ever-important question: is it good for the Jews?
Why did you decide to bring Bad Jews to Seattle?
The play is hilarious, while at the same time asking real and resonant questions. That’s what SPT is all about — great entertainment that is thought-provoking. I’m Jewish, so it has a certain resonance for me personally, but the play is universal in its appeal and accessibility. I feel passionately that Seattle can embrace Bad Jews as an excellent piece of theater and as a cultural touchstone, a theatrical event that brings Jews and non-Jews together for great laughs and great discussion. I’m looking forward to talking with others about what it means to be Jewish in our community, what it means to marry outside the faith, and how we are carrying the legacy of the Holocaust forward as we become ever more and more removed from those who lived it. As producer it’s a huge coup: the show has sold out runs all across the country.
Is the play controversial, or just the title?
Both, if by controversial we mean provocative. Neither, if we mean scandalous or divisive. The title is certainly incendiary, but the play itself is engaging. There may be polarizing moments in the play, and certainly each character will provoke a wide variety of responses, but the play isn’t political, or alienating, or derogatory in any way. Josh Harmon said that the title just popped into his head before he’d even written the play. I love that. He had a spark of an idea, based on an experience at a Yom HaShoah memorial service, when he was upset to hear the young grandchildren of survivors speaking in clichés about the Holocaust.
What do you love about the play?
Harmon uses a classic setup (a fight over family inheritance) and plays on cultural stereotypes (i.e., the zealous “super Jew” and the assimilated “bad Jew”) to get at deeply nuanced emotion and authentic truths. His characters are viciously intelligent, incredibly verbal, gutsy individuals. Being trapped together in a tiny space, in a heightened emotional moment at pivotal points in each of their lives, exacerbates and heightens their edges and extremes.
How do you hope Bad Jews will provoke conversation?
First, by making us laugh. Comedy opens us up. When we laugh we are naturally more open to connection and curiosity.
When the run ends, what do you hope people will be talking about?
How extraordinarily talented the actors are. What a fantastic community treasure the Bathhouse Theater is, and kudos to Seattle Public Theater for risking such a title. I also hope the audience will discuss some of the pivotal issues in the play, such as: What family heirloom matters the most to you? What is the value of suffering? What is your inheritance? How are American Jews redefining identity and legacy? Does being Jewish necessarily involve struggle? Is love more important than family?
How did being a Jewish Seattle native influence your decision to stage this play?
I first read the play when my own brother was dating a non-Jew. I found myself pulled in multiple directions by (characters) Liam and Daphna’s arguments as I thought about my own family legacy and what role Judaism might play for the next generation of Bestocks. Our parents struggled to give us a Jewish education at a time when there wasn’t really anything outside of a more traditional synagogue setting. Forging a secular Jewish identity — rooted in heritage and social justice and standing outside the mainstream — was a central part of my upbringing.
Is Bad Jews good for Seattle Jews?
You make it sound like broccoli! Good for us? Perhaps. A risk worth taking? Definitely. An opportunity for some beautiful community building? For sure. I never believe in one play’s ability to save the world or save us from ourselves. The play doesn’t ask any of us to be “good Jews” — rather, the play asks what being a “good” Jew can possibly mean for a generation coming of age in America 60 years after the Holocaust. Bad Jews creates opportunities for lively conversations that feed and fuel individuals and community. OK, yeah. It’s good for us!
More Upcoming Theater Events
A Borrowed Identity
An Arab teen struggles to find his identity in the complicated political climate of 1980s Israel. Based on Sayed Kashua’s novel Dancing Arabs. $5–10. At the Stroum JCC.
Come From Away
November 13–December 13
A musical with Jewish themes recounting the true story of 38 planes diverted to Gander, Newfoundland, on 9/11, and the town’s transformation in the face of terror. At Seattle Repertory Theatre, 155 Mercer St., Seattle.
Israeli TV Dinner
December 5 at 6 p.m.
Watch season 1 of Florentine over a Middle Eastern dinner. Peace may be on its way, but for residents of this bohemian Tel Aviv neighborhood, personal matters override politics. $10–15. At the Stroum JCC.
Regarding Susan Sontag
December 17 at 7:30 p.m.
Susan Sontag was one of the most influential and provocative thinkers of the 20th century, whose essays on women, war, illness, and politics were both admired and reviled. At the Stroum JCC.