Don Fried — Playwright & Author

Posts Tagged ‘Jews

hasidic-jewsIt’s been a mighty busy week in the great scheme of play marketing.

Last Monday I flew to Omaha and then rented a car and drove to Des Moines for a public reading of “Postville” at StageWest.  (“Postville” is my play about the group of Hasidic Jews who bought a defunct meatpacking plant in a struggling, northeast Iowa town and reopened it as a kosher facility.  Click here for the synopsis.)   There was a rehearsal on Monday night and then the reading was Tuesday night.  There were over 100 people at the reading, which is about three times the turnout that they normally get for this kind of thing.  Given the media attention the play has gotten, that wasn’t surprising.

The reading went better than I had hoped for — people laughed at the right times, they oohed and aahed at the right times, they even wiped their eyes and sniffled at the right times.  Wait!  Maybe that was me wiping and sniffling.  But the laughing and oohing and aahing is the gospel truth.

Everybody seemed engrossed in the play from the first page through the end, an hour and forty intermission-free minutes later.  No shuffling in seats, no checking of watches or talking among themselves, and only two people running out to the rest room.  And when it was over, there was sustained, enthusiastic applause.  I’ve been around theater enough to know the difference between polite, “Let’s get out of here, but not embarrass the cast” applause, and “This was really pretty good” applause.  This was the latter.

Next there was a 5 minute potty break.  Most of the audience then left, but about 30 people returned for a talk-back session.

The events in Postville (see the article on the play in the Iowa Independent or the Des Moines Register for some of the background) have been in the news in Iowa on a daily basis for the past year, and it has all been incredibly traumatic and emotional for the people of Iowa.  Was the owner of the plant  guilty of immigration and human-rights violations?  Or was the whole thing being blown out of proportion by the media because he is a member of a Jewish religious sect?  Did the immigration agents abuse the rights of the illegal immigrants?  There are dozens of issues here.

Given the level of attention and emotion, I knew that many Iowans were going to have very strong prejudices about what should be the focus of the play, what should be included and excluded, and even whether it should have been written at all.  So I was expecting to get beaten up by at least some of the people who remained for the talk-back session.  And I was.

Three groups emerged from those who stayed.  Five or six people were what I’ll call activists.  They came with an axe to grind, and they were going to grind it.  How dare I write a fictional play (the play has been marketed as a fictional account, inspired by the events in Postville) and use the name of the town?  I should either write a documentary, 100% factual, or else I should move the setting of the play somewhere else, change the Hasidim to some other group (Amish?), and make it otherwise unrecognizable.  Some people insisted I should make it more clear that the owner of the plant was criminally guilty.  Others insisted that I should make him completely innocent.

You get the idea.  Nobody likes to talk more or louder than a social activist with an audience.  These 5 or 6 people each had vastly differing opinions, each insisted that I  HAD TO change the play as he or her wanted it changed.  Between them they monopolized most of the conversation.

The second group was made up of three older college playwriting professors.  Someone who has taught playwriting for 40 years gets used to looking for problems and telling their students how to fix them.  And the students have to listen to them.  So off we went to the races with the professors being professorial, recommending changes that ranged from throwing out 80% of the play to throwing out 120% of the play and starting over.  My favorite suggestion from this group was that the play shouldn’t have 11 characters and take place in and around the main street of the town of Postville, it should have 2 characters and all take place in the living room of one of the Hasidic Jews.  In Crown Heights, Brooklyn.  Thanks a lot.  Very helpful.

The third group was made up of normal theater-goers, a few of whom said nice things about the play, but most of whom sat in shocked silence while the activists eviscerated me and the playwriting professors eviscerated my play.

Later, the people from StageWest and several of the readers told me that they couldn’t believe with how much aplomb I had sat and absorbed the abuse.  One of them said to me, “But I guess you’ve been to this sort of rodeo before.”  Amen to that, sister.  It takes a thick skin to be a playwright!

By the way, the feedback from the cast and the artistic management of StageWest is that “Postville” is a good play, which may need some tweaking but certainly doesn’t need to be gutted before moving on to production.  (Thank you to Ron, Ron, Todd, and the cast for your hard work.  You did a great job.)

The next day I drove to Postville and met with several people, including the rabbi of the town’s Hasidic community and the man who had been the mayor during and after the raids.   Overall, I felt I got a mandate to go ahead with the play basically as is, and to leave it referring to Postville.  Several of the people I talked to said that it may even do the town some good.  And the ex-mayor suggested that I submit “Postville” to nearby Luther College to see if they would be interested in producing it.

The next step is a reading of “Postville” at the Theater Company of Lafayette (Colorado) in September, and a production at their Mary Miller Theater next February.

Take that, bleeding heart activists!  And for everyone who told me what I HAVE TO DO to rewrite most or all of the script, write your own damn play.

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.