Basement Arts to explore Jewish identity with 'Bad Jews'

Tuesday, November 7, 2017 - 4:28pm

Three cousins sit in a small studio apartment on Riverside and 84th street in New York City. They are arguing about a necklace — which holds far more value than what appears on its surface.

This week, Basement Arts presents “Bad Jews,” a play written by Joshua Harmon. It is a story that projects the significance of familial ties, tradition and how a family’s history influences the present.

“It is the night of the cousins’ grandfather’s funeral, who was the patriarch of the family and a Holocaust survivor,” said School of Music, Theatre & Dance Senior and director Noa Gelb. “They are currently discussing who gets the relic of the family, which is this Haim necklace, the Jewish word for ‘life.’”

The play revolves around four characters who each provide different perspectives on topics of identity and understanding the impact of their Jewish roots. Daphna, played by LSA sophomore Sydney Prince — from her thick, curly hair, to her headstrong and assertive demeanor — embodies the stereotypical Jewish woman. Daphna’s cousins, Liam, played by SMTD junior Matthew Kemp, and Jonah, played by LSA sophomore Devin Raymond, are very different in personality. Those differences bring about their own series of problems within the ongoing debate.

“Liam and Daphna are very similar, but on opposite sides,” Gelb said. “They have a lot of conflict, but they are essentially the same person, just with opposite opinions.”

The playwright, Joshua Harmon, illuminated these similar-but-opposite dynamics in his script.

“Harmon does this great thing — every time they speak without the other in the room, they have all these repeated lines that they don’t even know the other person is saying,” Gelb said.

Melody, played by Nursing freshman Ashley Musleh, is immensely different than the other three characters. She is the “non-Jew,” who acts as the well-behaved juxtaposition to the rest. She is Liam’s girlfriend and finds that she clearly does not fit in with the company surrounding her.

“She [Melody] is thrust into this situation of this very strong, independent, opinionated Jewish girl, her also strong, opinionated cousin and their youngest cousin, who is trying to mediate between them without causing conflict,” Gelb said. “It’s a great show about relationships, family and outsiders.”

As the play moves through the incessant debate of who will receive the relic of the family, there is an added twist.

“This necklace was used as a ring, almost as a proposal mechanism for the grandmother for the “next” person, and the next spouse. Now Liam wants to propose to his girlfriend, using this necklace, thereby taking it out of the faith and out of the family,” Gelb said.

The initial conflict becomes far more complex as new problems arise in considering how a symbol of the Jewish family can be transferred outside of its traditional realm. Gelb described how unique the Jewish faith is in that it represents a set of religious practices as well as a cultural community.

“They all have very different views of what being Jewish means,” Gelb said. “What does it mean to be Jewish and not want to carry on the faith in the way that your community expects you to? What does it mean when your faith is your community and when your community betrays your faith?”

In considering more questions that the play grapples with, Gelb discussed recent discoveries while studying the script with the cast.

“One thing that the show has created controversy for is the stereotypical nature of the characters,” Gelb said. “The very pure Gentile, very strong, opinionated woman and this fragile masculinity — they are all very heightened. One thing that we have explored is how we can take these stereotypes and add a little sympathy to them.”

To combat the limitations posed by stereotypical depictions, the cast aimed to find depth in each character and challenged existing standards. Among the many topics this play explores, Gelb defined the specific stereotypes that surround the Jewish people: the idea of being  “chosen people,” the Holocaust as an incredibly formative event of the past and the extreme importance of maintaining Jewish identity in our modern world.

“It so important that people identify as Jewish,” Gelb said. “Not only did they come from a Jewish background, but that they are Jewish.”

When asked about a rewarding part of the project as the director of the show, Gelb recalled a certain moment when she watched everything begin to piece together.

“Normally I shout out things they need to fix, as I direct the scene. There was one point when we were doing it yesterday and we were sort of drilling it over and over until we got what we wanted,” Gelb said. “I forgot to stop them because I was so immersed in watching it. We had reached the end of the show and they were sitting there for like three minutes because I had forgotten to call blackout.”

Gelb explained that when she first saw “Bad Jews” in D.C. she thought the show was funny and informative: “It was true to my identity as a Jew. It was a beautiful, theatrical, educational experience.” She hopes to provide a similar experience for audiences this weekend.