Negro Ensemble's CABARET EMIGRE Set to Open 11/7 After Hurricane Delay
"Cabaret Émigré" by Sophia Romma, originally scheduled for November 2 to 18, will now open November 7 and will add performances November 11, 13 and 14 to make up for lost shows due to Hurricane Sandy. This new play, directed by Charles Weldon, is being presented by Negro Ensemble Company at the Lion Theater, Theater Row.
An emigrant feels like a circus man who is traveling the endless doroga (Russian for "the road.") The sins of your past are inconsequential and your future is in limbo. It's a human condition that is painted poetically in "Cabaret Émigré." The play contains ten Lewis Carroll-style testimonials that are told as cabaret acts by a collection of émigrés who are primarily Russian Jews (like the author), but also include émigrés from Latin America and Africa. All of them have no other motive than to entertain each other and their resulting acts are outrageous and macabre, like a journey down the rabbit hole.
The play is based on interviews that Romma conducted with other émigrés last October in preparation for a play she was drafting for the Women's Initiative (which she founded) of the Dramatists Guild. She started by interviewing people she knew, who were mostly performers. These included young Russian and Ukrainian immigrants, a Mexican friend (known since high school in Long Island) and a Nigerian man she had gone to college with, all of whom referred more émigrés with tales. The stories that appeared presented a similar theme: that of a poet who is prisoner of a soulless existence, suspended in time. It was in keeping with the nature of the first group she interviewed that Romma set the play in a cabaret, where émigrés would amuse each other with stories that sail off into bizarre reflections from the characters' family histories and are scripted in Quantum Verse.
Most of the skits are autobiographical, presenting distorted family histories and twisted memories of those who left their homelands behind. The first performer is a young Jewish comic from St. Petersburg who longs to return there. He is a prisoner of his own rage and has a classic case of an émigré’s nostalgia. The evening's emcees, Jamal and Dasha, are an interracial couple: he is black; she is Russian-Jewish. Their parents disapprove of their love affair and this inspires Dasha to reflect on her grandmother, who loved a Russian paratrooper who was not Jewish. She recreates the badgering her grandmother endured from her own parents over their diner table in Moscow. A man named Lyosha conjures up a nightmare train ride in 1939 where the ticket-master is Stalin, who summons Hitler, the conductor of the train, to the compartment where the Jews are fleeing persecution and war. In another vignette, a Ukrainian Jewish mathemetician who can't find peace in his soul longs for the absolution of Catholic confession and plays out a surreal encounter with a priest. In the Dutch Caribbean, a Mexican man, frightened by the segregation he endured in high school, has been thrown off a sight-seeing boat and is adrift at sea with his Moldavian émigré love interest. They compare their childhoods as they are hopelessly drowning. The following vignette is a Sartre-like encounter of no escape, in which a Gestapo General, Hindlick Muller and his sexy sidekick Fraulein Friesel, are trapped in Hell with a Jewish War World II Soldier and his grandparents. The trials that the Soviet soldier's grandparents faced are revealed to demonstrate how love does not conquer all. In the final vignette, a Nigerian who battles himself in his own head is represented as a boxer, named the Nigerian Butcher, who squares off with an Irish racist tormenter. The skit reflects on bigotry, inhumane intolerance and how an athlete's accomplishments can be disowned by both his native country and his new one.
The émigré experience is one of dislocation, to which Ms. Romma can testify, having emigrated with her mother from Moscow in 1979. "You don't know where your community is," she says. "Where you belong nationally is eradicated. You get confused and dislocated. Every single person I have come across had the same experience." So it is logical that the play's predominant style is Quantum Verse. Ms. Romma, in all of her plays, questions the reality of what is seemingly obvious in our human existence. There is weirdness and absurdity at play which reigns in the quantum universe, as it does in her verse. The play rhymes, but in non sequiturs. There is repartee of indirect associations. Puns are abundant, often extracted into sexual insults. Characters speak in inappropriate Americanisms (like, "Do you accept God's will for you?" "Yes, Holy Roller-ness, I most certainly do.") Ms. Romma employs various languages (Russian, German, Yiddish and French) which are sprinkled throughout the play in order to add flavor to an eclectic cultural presence within Cabaret Émigré. The play is infuriatingly challenging to read, but it makes perfect sense when you watch it performed.
Director Charles Weldon, Artistic Director of The Negro Ensemble, saw the reading of "Cabaret Émigré" (then called "Doroga") at the Dramatist's Guild and relates being drawn to the play's universal theme of being an unwelcome stranger in a strange land. In the winter of 2010, at The Cherry Lane Theater, he directed "With Aaron's Arms Around Me and The Mire," an evening of two one-acts by Sophia Romma, both of which dealt with themes of intolerance from an émigré's perspective. Weldon has been Artistic Director of Negro Ensemble Company for seven years. He has directed the Company's productions of "Colored People Time" by Leslie Lee, "The Waiting Room" by Samm-Art Williams, "Savanna Black and Blue" by Raymond Jones and "Ceremonies in Dark Old Men" by Lonnie Elder. Other directing credits include "Futurology" by Anthony Dixon for National Black Theatre (NYC), "Waiting to End Hell" by William Parker for Shadow Theatre Co. (Denver) and "The Offering" by Gus Edwards for RipRap Theatre Co. (N. Hollywood). Weldon began his performance career in 1960 as lead singer with The Paradons, a Doo-Wop group from Bakersfield, CA, and co-wrote and recorded the smash hit "Diamonds and Pearls." He performed in the original San Francisco production of "Hair" and the Broadway musical "Buck Time Buck White" with Mohammed Ali. He joined the Negro Ensemble Company in 1970 and acted in many of its classic plays including "The Great McDaddy," "The Offering," "The Brownsville Raid," "A Soldier's Play" and the Company's Broadway production of "The River Niger." His films include "Stir Crazy," "Serpico," "The River Niger" and "Malcolm X." He won an Audelco Award for Best Supporting Actor in "Seven Guitars" by August Wilson at Signature Theater. He co-founded the Alumni of the Negro Ensemble Company.
In presenting plays by Sophia Romma, The Negro Ensemble Company continues its mission to explore and expose intolerance and bigotry. In the past, the focus has been on intolerance that primarily affects the African American community, using characters in various plays as spokespersons for a whole society. Intolerance and bigotry exist, however, within ethnic groups and cultures themselves, to equally damaging degrees. So plays like Romma's widen that exploration.
Playwright Sophia Romma (who previously wrote under the name Sophia Murashkovsky) emigrated with her parents from Russia 33 years ago. Her mother is a Ukrainian Jew and her father is a Polish Jew. Her birth name, Murashkovsky, is Polish but she officially changed it last year "because nobody could pronounce it." The name she chose, Romma, would have been close to her Patronymic name in Russian, Romanovna. She is a resident playwright of The Mayakovsky Academic Art Theatre of Moscow, where the name Quantum Verse was coined to describe her literary style. The name derives from the question "How real is the universe?" and the notion that it may contain parallel dialogues, a simple one and a metaphysical one.
She received her MFA at NYU and her Ph.D. from the prestigious Gorky Literary Institute in Moscow. Her last production, "With Aaron's Arms Around Me and The Mire," contained one original scenario ("With Aaron's Arms Around Me") and one loosely adapted from Chekhov ("The Mire"). The New York Times (Andy Webster) wrote, "Each takes a refreshing, almost sideways approach to the subject of ethnic tension." The review had particular praise for "The Mire," where a humorless lieutenant is undone by a girl named Svetlana, "who speaks in effervescent wordplay artfully derived from Chekhov, and [the Lieutenant] is ensnared in her enchantments. So is the audience."
Romma was author of the film "Poor Liza," directed by Slava Tsukerman ("Liquid Sky") starring Oscar Winner Ben Gazzara, Oscar Winner Lee Grant and Barbora Babulova. The film adapts a classic Russian story by Nikolai Karamzin about a beautiful peasant girl who is seduced and forsaken by a young nobleman. "Poor Liza" won the Grand Prix Garnet Bracelet for best screenplay at the Gatchena Literature and Film Festival in St. Petersburg in 2000. She has had three productions at La Mama E.T.C.: "Love, in the Eyes of Hope, Dies Last" (1997), a journey through contemporary Jewish/Russian immigration in a series of eight playlets, "Coyote, Take Me There!" (1999), a surrealistic work on the ordeal of immigration and the corruption of the American dream, and "Defenses Of Prague" (2004), a story of the Golem's revenge on the Gypsies who had stolen his "Shem" or soul, granted to him by God, set in 1968, on the brink of the Soviet invasion of Prague.
In "Shoot Them in the Cornfields" (2006 at the Producers Club Theater), a fictionalized family history time tripped between World War II, The Khrushchev Reign, and the heady days of the Coup d'état of 1991. Her "Absolute Clarity," a tale of a teenage heroine—a white raven and rebellious young artist searching for love and absolution—was presented Off-Broadway at The Players Theatre in 2006. In 2007 at the Cherry Lane Theater, her play, "The Past is Still Ahead," about the final day in the life of famed Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva, had its American debut.
In 2005, Romma's anthology of poetry, "God and My Good" was published by the Gorky Literary Institute. In 2006 her collection of poems, "Garden of the Avant-garde" was published by Noble House. Ms. Romma has co-directed her play "Defenses of Prague" with Obie-winner and Tony Nominated playwright, Leslie Lee. She has also directed Mr. Lee's one-act play, "You're Not Here to Talk about Beethoven." Ms. Romma has instructed classes in Playwriting, Memoir Writing, and Screenwriting at the Schaumburg Center in conjunction with Frederick Douglass Creative Arts Center, and screenwriting at the New York Film Academy. She is currently the Literary Manager of the Negro Ensemble Company. (www.sophiaromma.net).
"Cabaret Émigré" will be acted by Adriana Sananes, Carolyn Seiff, Allan Mirchin, Randy Schein, Walter Krochmal, Tosh Marks, Grant Morenz, Gwenevere Sisco, Dana Pelevine, Bettina Bennett and DeLance Minefee. Dramaturg is Maxine Kern. Set design is by Dara Wishingrad. Music is composed by Lev Zhurbin. Costume design is by Leslie Dockery. Lighting design is by Yuri Mayer, and Sound design by Tommy Renino.
Photo Credit: Jonathan Slaff