EAST TOWARDS HOME Plays Theater for the New City, Now thru 2/2
"East Towards Home" by Billy Yalowitz brings to life three generations of Jewish left-wing culture in New York City, combining tales of radical choreographers of the 1930's and 40's, texts and songs from Woody Guthrie, and first-person stories of the author's NYC Jewish left-wing childhood in the 1960's and 70's. With loose-limbed storytelling, visual projections, animation, modern dance and live music, it offers a personal and impassioned look at the culture and history of the American Jewish radical left-wing community at a time when this legacy is in danger of passing into obscurity. Theater for the New City will present the play's world premiere run today, January 16 to February 2, directed by David Schechter.
At its heart, "East Towards Home" is a coming of age tale that starts out in the author's boyhood, in an era when Jewish left-wing urban culture was fading. It zigzags back and forth in time, juxtaposing memories of his cross-country hitchhiking journey in the 1970's with scenes of Woody Guthrie's collaboration with the New Dance Group in 1942. As a young man, Yalowitz passed through a latter day dustbowl with a guitar strapped to his backpack, attempting to compose pure and populist folk anthems. The "backstory" is that Marjorie Mazia, a Martha Graham dancer and a pillar of the New Dance Group, was Woody Guthrie's second wife and part of Yalowitz's extended community. In his youth, Yalowitz was entranced by the idea of Guthrie as an "American Voice" (as were Bob Dylan and Ramblin Jack Elliott) and tried to "come of age" by going west. But historically, Guthrie actually came east and fell in love with someone who might have been Yalowitz's grandmother. Essentially, Woody had embraced the world that the young man was trying to escape: the left-wing community of New York City, with its cooperative housing projects, summer colonies and camps of a receding Jewish left-wing.
This irony is the basis of the play and it speaks directly to current generations who are looking at not only issues of Jewish identity and assimilation, but also issues of universalism vs. particularism on the left. Yalowitz points out that the question, "If I am to be for the working class, can I also be for the Jews?," was a decades-long issue that divided leftists of many stripes. The issue is repeating itself in identity politics today for many young people. Yalowitz sees the play as a chance to put this history into their ears in a very personal voice.
"East Towards Home" was written from historical research and autobiographical accounts. Its sources include texts and songs uncovered at the Woody Guthrie Archives and oral histories gathered from several women who danced with the New Dance Group in the 1940s and 50s. The script was also inspired by writings by and interviews with radical choreographers of the 1920s and 30s, including Edith Segal, Nadia Chilkovsky, Sophie Maslow, and Marjorie Mazia Guthrie. More tales were culled from recollections of the early years of Goldens Bridge Cooperative Colony, one of about about fifteen radical Jewish communities founded in the Hudson Valley in the 1920's. The playwright's own stories are drawn from his memories of growing up in cooperative housing projects, socialist vacation colonies and left-wing summer camps in and around New York City. The play's website is www.easttowardshome.com.
The play is performed by Eleanor Reissa, David Kremenitzer, Brian Gunter and the author. Eleanor Reissa played the title role of Yentl for the National Yiddish Theater's critically acclaimed production, and was a TONY nominee for direction of "Those Were The Days," which she also choreographed and starred in. She is a former Artistic Director of the Folksbiene Yiddish Theatre. The production makes abundant use of multimedia by Dustin Grella, who has assembled its complex animation and projections. Period choreography is by Michael Raine. The score, comprised of Woody Guthrie songs Labor songs of the 1930's to the 50's, is performed by and Brian Gunter on mandolin, banjo, guitar, dobro and harmonica, joined by Billy Yalowitz on guitar.
Author/performer Billy Yalowitz is a playwright, director, choreographer, and musician. His work has been presented at Dixon Place, TNC ("Night of the Broken Eye," 2010); Untitled Theater Co. # 61, NYC ("10 Imaginings of Sarah and Hagar," 2009); Culture Project, NYC ("Six Actors in Search of a Plot," 2006) ; Storahtelling Theater, NYC ("Scapegoat," 2003); Painted Bride Art Center, Philadelphia ("Excavations," 1995); and others. Yalowitz was named "Best Unclassifiable Theater Artist" by Philadelphia's City Paper in 1997 and Best Choreographer by the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1999. He was nominated for a Barrymore Award for his work at People's Light & Theater Company in 1998. He has been awarded grants from the Nathan Cummings Foundation, James L. Knight Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation and Woodrow Wilson Foundation, among others. Yalowitz is an Associate Professor and co-director of the Community Arts Practices program at Tyler School of Art, Temple University.
Director David Schechter (www.davidschechter.com) has directed and/or co-written over 150 productions, including the original musicals "Soul Doctor" (Broadway), "Hannah Senesh" (Off-Broadway, Drama Desk Award Nomination), "Almost September" (8 Bay Area Critic Circle Awards, 7 Dramalogue Awards, including Best Director), "The Jungle Book" (New Victory Theater) and "A Letter to Harvey Milk" (winner of 5 top jury awards at the New York Musical Theatre Fest.) He shared the Obie Award with Elizabeth Swados as a co-creator of "Nightclub Cantata" and contributed original material to her multiple Tony Award Nominated Broadway musical, "Runaways." His adaptation of Isaac Bashevis Singer's story Gimpel The Fool (La MaMa, ETC) was honored by the Nobel Laureate's personal endorsement.
Schechter directed staged readings of the play at Chelsea Studios (NYC) in August 2010 and at the National Museum of American Jewish History (Philadelphia) in December 2011. The latter was the culminating event of a week-long residency on radical Jewish culture and history. There has been praise for the play's finesse and for its spiritual message to young Jewish progressives, who are seeking access to their radical roots and connection to their elders (especially as that generation is passing on). Noah T. Winer, co-founder of MoveOn.org, wrote "Our elders fought for justice, failed often, succeeded more than anyone admits, and found rich lives for trying. Stories like 'East Towards Home' make us all more human." Dr. Lila Corwin Berman, Murray Friedman Chair of American Jewish History and Director of the Feinstein Center at Temple University, wrote "Yalowitz gracefully weaves together his own biography with the history and artistic culture of the American and Jewish left. The intersections of these stories create more than the sum of their parts and beckon us to reflect on where we've been, where we are, and where we're going."
Yalowitz is appreciative to the historic Theater for the New City and artistic director Crystal Field for presenting the premiere of "East Towards Home." He writes, "TNC is a fitting home for this production, with its own radical lineage and its association with progressive theater artists including The Living Theater, the San Francisco Mime Troupe, and Tim Robbins."
This production is supported in part by the Puffin Foundation, BMI/Woody Guthrie Archives Fellowship, Pew Charitable Trusts, Heritage Philadelphia Program, National Museum of American Jewish History, Feinstein Center for American Jewish History and Vice Provost for the Arts, Temple University.