Don Fried — Playwright & Author

They’re Hijacking My Play!

Posted on: December 12, 2008

pirateAbout 5 years ago, when I was still living and working in Europe, I was spending a lot of time working in Zurich. One night I was having trouble sleeping, and I turned on the radio in the hotel room to the BBC. A piece came on about Postville, an isolated small town in northeastern Iowa. In the late 1980s, Postville, like many small Midwestern towns, was having trouble. The local meatpacking plant had closed down a few years before, all the young people were moving away to Chicago and Minneapolis, and in 10 or 15 years, the town would be out of business. Which really upset the locals, many of whose families had been in Postville since its founding in the 1850s.

Then, one day in 1987, an entrepreneur showed up and purchased the plant with the intention of reopening it. The townspeople were delighted. There would be jobs and economic development, and Postville would be saved from extinction.

Except that the entrepreneur was a Hasidic Jew from the Lubavitch sect in Brooklyn, and the plant would be a kosher one. Kosher meatpacking plants are not your typical “outsourcing” venture. A large percentage of the work must be done by specially trained, orthodox Jews.

So in moved 30 orthodox rabbis and their (large) families. Still wonderful, thought the locals. This is America, it’s the melting pot. We’ll accept and absorb anyone. And the townspeople, being the welcoming folk that they were, formed a welcoming committee to help the Hasidim adopt to life in rural Iowa. There would be a “buddy system” matching the Hasidic children with local children at the local schools. There would be dances for the older youth. And the Hasidic women would be invited to come help out preparing for the Postville Christmas Bazaar. But first, the townspeople and the Hasidim would get together for a spare rib barbecue picnic! (As my old Haverford College classmate Dave Barry frequently says in his syndicated newspaper column, “I am not making this up.”)

The Hasidim immediately let the locals know that they had no intention of being absorbed.  Their children wouldn’t be going to the local schools; their sons wouldn’t be dating the townspeople’s daughters, and their daughters wouldn’t be dating the townspeople’s sons; and the Hasidic women wouldn’t be working for the Christmas Bazaar. And not only weren’t they going to eat spare-ribs, they weren’t going to eat anything that they hadn’t prepared themselves. Ever.

The townspeople were, of course, profoundly offended and an epic culture clash ensued. But economic salvation is economic salvation, and both sides determined to make the best of it. The next thing that happened, however, is that meatpacking plants have a lot of low-paying, dirty, dangerous jobs that neither the Hasidim nor the locals were willing to do. So in came a large number of immigrant workers from Eastern Europe and Latin America. And Postville, a town of 1,500 people which had never knowingly seen a Jew or a black in person before (of course they’d seen them on TV and the movies, just not in person), suddenly had a population of 1/3 people of color and culture.

Even though I had not yet started my writing career, I recognized this as a story of great dramatic potential, and I wrote it down in my “Ideas File.” A year and a half after I retired, after I’d completed and had some success with my first two full-length plays, I contacted Stephen Bloom, who had written a book entitled “Postville: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America.” Bloom was the one I’d heard being interviewed on the BBC program. We negotiated and signed a contract for me to purchase the theatrical rights to the book, and I set about writing a play “inspired” by the events in Postville.

AP Photo, The Waterloo Courier/ Matthew Putney

AP Photo, The Waterloo Courier/ Matthew Putney

But in May, 2008, there was an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raid on the Postville plant.  The raid uncovered a large number of illegal immigrants, some underage workers, and various other labor infractions. While I had heard rumors about this sort of thing before I started outlining the play, I had decided that the themes for the play would be completely different.

  1. Change is inevitable. It’s not as though the alternative is living eternally in the 1950s and being happy and prosperous forever.
  2. Change hurts, and when people are hurt they often react in inappropriate ways.
  3. The American melting pot model is no longer universally applicable. Not everyone wants or needs to assimilate and disappear into the American “mocha mix.”
  4. Somehow, people will reach a new working arrangement and learn to live together.

I had consciously chosen to ignore the raid and its aftermath – fines, arrests, the meatpacking company going into receivership, general uproar. But in the 8 months since the raid, there has been ongoing news coverage, and I was becoming increasingly concerned that my play was being hijacked. People would expect to see the raid and its implications addressed.

Then, last week, I came up with a way to incorporate the events but not turn the message of my play on its head. Some unhappy locals would have instigated the raid by tipping off the government.  When the raid comes and the plant closes they, along with everyone else, realize that an uncomfortable truce was greatly preferable to extinction.  The plant re-opens, and life goes on at a new level of compromise.

I had a reading of the first half of the play last night, and I think it’s going to work. Wish me luck, and watch out for “Postville,” which I hope to complete in the next 3 or 4 months.

4 Responses to "They’re Hijacking My Play!"

Why, the raid works completely with the themes of your play. The only difference is that now it’s the Hassidic Jews – a group of people resist change like its meningitis – who have to come to terms with the fact that they, too, must change their ways in order to survive. It’s the perfect third act.

By the way, check out Unknown Screenwriter’s last two posts on theme. I think you might find it interesting.

Yeah, in hindsight it seems obvious. But all through the development so far, people have been haranguing me with, “You’ll never be able to write this play without making it anti-Semitic.” So I’ve been extremely careful to avoid the issue of guilt in any way. Another theme of the play that I didn’t mention in the post is that “No one is to blame.”

The recent developments invite you to deal with blame. So I guess I just had my blinders on.

You’re right, including it as the primary driver for the third act is definitely a positive addition to the play.

You know, I have heard about and discussed this play with you for several years. I really do like the spin you have set to it, giving it a new dimension.

I think you should place plenty of comedy in this. Hasids are funny.. as are American hicks. If you make fun of everyone, no one can be offended.. or everyone is offended equally!

[…] a look at Don’s blog, “They’re Hijacking My Play” to see more on the events in Postville and on the play, and click on the following links to […]

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