JCC Theaterworks understands the concept of community.
Not in the sense of “amateur,” which is what we usually think of when we put the words “community” and “theater” together. Theaterworks comes out of a certain community. It finds scripts that raise provocative issues in that community. Then it brings in representatives from other communities to broaden the discussion. Finally, it doesn’t stick to its Jewish Community Center of Greater New Haven home base in Amity. It finds other venues and audiences, and communities.
Thursday night’s Theaterworks reading of Itta-Chana Englander’s play I’m Not Like You was as worthwhile for the discussion it inspired afterwards as for the play itself. DeDe Jacobs Komisar—the director of the reading and the driving force behind JCC Theaterworks—and playwright Englander were co-founders of the Jewish Theatre Workshop in Baltimore. The Theaterworks production was previously announced under a different title (Malkiel), and scheduled for a different date (in April). The Thursday reading was low-key, in a large gallery area on the second floor of Yale’s Slifka Center for an audience of about 20 people.
DeDe Jacobs-Komisar’s impending move from Connecticut to Massachusetts means that Theaterworks will have to reorganize if its members want to keep producing at the pace they’ve set in the past year, and the with the same visibility in the community. The momentum that the company has built up in recent months does not need to dissipate with her departure, however. Theaterworks has built up a loyal following and a solid core of local actors, and has uncovered a range of new and little-known scripts about pressing issues in contemporary Jewish culture (and life in general). The cast for this reading included the established New York writer/performer Ilya Khodosh; Jane Tamarkin, co-founder of New Haven’s Theatre 4; actor/comedian/UNH teacher Reuven Russell; Yale students Leah Salovey and Ezriel Gelbfish; and Yosef Cohen in a variety of small roles.
I’m Not Like You concerns Shlomo, a young man who, on a visit to Israel, is convinced by his buddies to lose his virginity to a prostitute and ends up HIV-positive. He keeps his condition a secret from his family, but at a support group Shlomo finds the perfect confidante in Malkiel. As boys, they’d gone to the same school, where Shlomo taunted Malkiel with gay slurs. Now out and proud and living on his own, Malkiel takes Shlomo in as a roommate.
There’s a public-service-announcement quality to Englander’s play, which wraps a lot of cautionary messages and practical information about HIV around its male-bonding plot. But it’s full of humor and warmth, as when Shlomo worries that “my shabbes shirt is not going to cover this,” pointing to a lesion near his neck, and Malkiel breaks out the cover-up make-up to help him through a fraught night with Shlomo’s suspicious mother.
A lot is made of Shlomo’s heterosexuality—“But I’m not gay. It was a woman, not a man,” he says when describing how he got the virus. For his part, the sarcastic Malkiel later tells Shlomo’s parents, “You don’t have to worry. Your son is just dying. He’s not gay.”
The reading set the stage for an animated post-show conversation that was almost as long as the play itself. Chris Cole, the executive director of AIDS Project New Haven (APNH), was brought in to lead the discussion, and he seized on the play’s themes of shame and stigmatization. “So much of what we do” at APNH, Cole said, “is combat secrets.”
He mentioned how when he became director, his judgement was questioned when he insisted on putting up a sign with the organization’s name on it outside its offices. Cole explained how he told people living with AIDS that they are like anyone else who must live with a chronic illness, and that they shouldn’t dwell on other people’s attitudes regarding AIDS. He lamented that, with advances in the treatments for HIV that allow those with the virus to live full, long lives, that young people are not heeding safe-sex warnings the way they should. He advocated straightforwardness and directness. Itta-Chana Englander’s drama, in which a lot of unfortunate confrontations emerge from ignorance and silence, seemed to bear out Cole’s concerns.
Some other messages gleaned from the drama were less complex. “If there’s one thing I learned from this play,” a woman in the audience offered, “it’s that if you going to sleep with a prostitute, use a condom—in Israel or anywhere.”