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On Saturday, January 26, the day the longest government shutdown in U.S. history ended, Quintessence Theatre Group opened its production of Clifford Odets’s 1935 classic family drama, Awake and Sing! What do these events have in common? This poetic, humorous, powerful play — which has too often been written off as a Depression-era period piece — examines the ideal of economic liberation via the American dream versus the reality that the capitalist system doesn’t allow most of us to achieve that dream.
If you followed the news (or #ShutdownStories on Twitter) over the last month, you know what happens when a prolonged government shutdown hits hundreds of thousands of government employees — many of whom, like the majority of Americans, live paycheck to paycheck. People with diabetes couldn’t afford to buy their insulin; employees mandated to report to work had no money to buy gas to get them there; others sold off every possession they owned in order to pay their rent or mortgage. The shutdown quickly revealed the thin line between solvency and economic crisis.
Fear, then and now
In Awake and Sing!, family matriarch Bessie Berger recounts all of the families she’s seen on the sidewalks who’ve been evicted from their homes — a litany of anxiety that is palpable for this family of three generations, sharing a cramped Bronx apartment. Even worse than the evictions, characters also describe the suicides they’ve seen firsthand — told with more gallows humor than shock or pity.
What might we have seen had this shutdown gone on any longer? Living in the United States in 2019, the anxiety and uncertainty that surrounds the Berger family feels tangible, real, and closer than ever.
Without humor — and without creating complex characters full of intense desires — a play like Awake and Sing! might be too much to bear. But Odets’s dialogue is full of poetry — plus wonderful 1930s slang and lots of pathos. Quintessence’s powerfully staged and acted production, directed by Max Shulman (a scholar of Odets), adds humor that releases the tension, with help from a dynamic ensemble (this play grew out of the Group Theatre and originally featured legendary actors like Sanford Meisner and Stella Adler).
Generation to generation
That tension comes from how the different generations — immigrants, first- and second-generation Americans — experience their lives in the Bronx in 1933. Grandfather Jacob, masterfully and touchingly portrayed by Lawrence Pressman, retains a dream of economic equality that’s totally at odds with what he’s experienced in America. His children, Morty and Bessie, buy wholeheartedly into the American dream. Morty, a successful garment-factory owner with his very own chauffeur, pays his sister $5 a month to keep Jacob with her. Bessie wants her 21-year-old son Ralphie to be like Morty — her husband Myron is no role model. He never finished law school, has had his hours cut at the haberdashery, and never manages to lift her into economic security.
Ralphie and his older sister Hennie have dreams of pursuing a better life, primarily through finding romantic love. Hennie’s dreams are quickly dashed when she discovers that she’s pregnant. Being an unmarried mother isn’t an acceptable option in her time, and abortion is never mentioned. Henny’s lack of choice about whether to bring a child into the world is another way that Odets’s drama is eerily contemporary.
History on repeat
The Berger family represents of the wave of Jewish families (like both of my grandmothers’ families) who left Eastern Europe between the 1880s and 1920s because of poverty and violence directed toward Jews, coming to America with high hopes. The American dream of economic security is the path to freedom, to safety; it's an antidote to the trauma passed from generation to generation with each anti-Semitic pogrom.
The reality in 2019 is that the Jewish community in America has largely experienced what the Berger family hoped for — a society in which we’ve experienced safety, liberty, and for many Jewish Americans, economic success. However, the tenet that the American dream is within everyone’s reach is simply a myth — studies have shown that 15 percent of Jews in the U.S. live in poverty.
And even more concerning: in the three months since the attack on the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh killed 11 people — the worst single act of anti-Semitic violence in U.S. history — the idea that the United States is a land of safety from anti-Semitism has now also become a myth.
Love goes on
At the heart of Odets’s play are human beings that we recognize, with relatable hopes and fears, surviving and coping with their circumstances as best they can. The most poignant part of the play is the pure, nonjudgmental love that Grandfather Jacob feels for his grandchildren, which he especially communicates to vulnerable Ralphie.
“Boychick, wake up!” Jacob tells his grandson. “Be something! Make your life something good. For the love of an old man who sees in your young days his new life, for such love take the world in your two hands and make it like new.”
Jacob’s ultimate sacrifice of his life for Ralphie is heartbreaking — yet the play ends with us cheering for Ralphie, for his empowerment, for the hope that Jacob’s love continues to surround him.
What, When, Where
Awake and Sing! By Clifford Odets, Max Shulman directed. Through February 17, 2019, at the Sedgwick Theatre, 7137 Germantown Avenue, Philadelphia. (215) 987-4450 or quintessencetheatre.org.
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