July 18, 2024
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East Towards Home: A Review

A voyage through Jewish time and space, with a definite tilt to the left, is laid out before the audience in Billy Yalowitz’s musical play East Towards Home, being presented at the Theater for the New City in Manhattan through February 2. Partially funded by the Puffin Foundation of Teaneck, the producers hope to also present it in other locations in the Metropolitan area in the near future.

Director David Schechter moves his four actors from early in the 20th century to the future, and from New York City to Oklahoma and back again. The play offers a personal and impassioned look at the legacy of the Jewish left, when that legacy is in danger of passing into obscurity. It presents a journey of a “red diaper baby,” a child of political lefties, to find new roots when the left is fighting for its life. The young man postulates that his parents’ political battles have not been taken up by the majority of Americans because they were too Jewish. He aims to become more American by travelling to the country’s heartland, to the home land of a truly American hero of the left, Woody Guthrie.

Guthrie is revealed to him in conversations with Jews who knew Guthrie and worked with him in New York City. Guthrie was a populist-socialist troubadour who travelled the length and breadth of this country to return the people’s words back to them in memorable songs. This he did out of the generosity of his heart, but he could not be adequately subsidized by the struggling people who he was struggling with. So, after many years on the road, he moved to New York to make a living out of his career. There he found success and his true home among the left-wing struggling Jews of New York. He married a Jewish dancer who expressed her feelings through dance in much the same way that Guthrie did through music. Working with her dance troupe, he discovered that there is support and strength through teamwork. In accompanying the troupe, he had to abandon his free-wheeling solo style and play to the rhythms that the group of dancers could follow. In this period, Guthrie wrote much music and poetry on Jewish themes which he was educated on by his beloved mother-in-law.

The young man finds that his American roots are deeply planted in his Jewish upbringing, presumably without religion, but in the prophetic tradition. The depth of his roots assures him that the tree has plenty of life left for continued growth and can grow many branches as changing conditions require.

The play is imaginatively presented on a small stage by four very talented actors through lovely song and dance, and clever animation. Guthrie’s songs and dialogue are all from his own records, musical and written. He is faithfully evoked on stage by Brian Gunter, who has played regional theater all over the U.S. for many years and studied Guthrie’s work closely. The old left is represented by Sylvie, an old Jewish woman who often expresses herself in Yiddish and who might have been one of the progressive dancers Guthrie worked with in the 1940s. She is played at various ages in different periods by the very appealing Eleanor Reissa, a Tony nominated choreographer and director, who was Artistic Director of the Folksbiene Theater. The playwright’s younger self is passionately portrayed by David Kremenitzer, who has appeared in several avant-garde plays and on television on The Daily Show and on Law and Order, among other appearances. Billy Yalowitz authentically plays his older self as narrator of the play. He is a widely published author and Associate Professor at Temple University. The play is drawn from his own background and extensive interviews and archive research.

The play speaks to those who are looking at both issues of Jewish identity and assimilation, and universalism vs. particularism on the left. While the play brought back many fond memories of cooperative housing in New York and colonies and camps in the mountains to the mostly “red diaper baby” audience now in their senior years, it is primarily designed to address the younger Jewish generation’s questions about identity politics.

If you cannot see it during its run at the Theater for the New City, look for its presentation soon somewhere nearby. It tells the story of an important segment of the Jewish people, with deep roots and a meaningful future.

By Steven Tencer

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