“It’s the 20th century! We are all attracted to both sexes.” – Madje Asch, Indecent
Indecent begins with a set of instructions: In this play, actors play multiple roles. In this play, we sing and dance. In this play, we speak Yiddish. Sometimes, German. Sometimes, English. In this play, we are Jewish. We create, celebrate. Sometimes we fight. Some of us survive.
In this play there are lesbians who dance in the rain.
And when I say they dance in the rain, I mean it. Real water pours from the ceiling in productions of Indecent. Right onto the stage. Women hold each other in an explicitly sensual way. They kiss through the raindrops. Through the cold. They allow their nightgowns to soak through, baring everything to each other.
Manke: You are my bride– you take my breath away! We sit at the shabbes table after your parents have gone to sleep. We’re alone. And we’re shy. But you are my bride and I am your bridegroom”
Rifkele: I want you to take me.
Manke: Are you sure?
Rifkele: I want to taste you
Real water, in the form of tears, pours down my face as I watch. Even now as I think about the rain scene, I well up.
Last month, I saw two college productions of Paula Vogel’s Indecent– one at Northwestern and the other at DePaul. DePaul is my alma mater. Within those walls, I found the artistic voice with which I write this piece. I grew up neighboring Northwestern, and though I’d never seen a play there, school spirit bleeds through the streets of Evanston. Even the fire hydrants are Wildcat purple.
These two institutions are meaningful to me beyond those educational allegiances. Not only did I learn who I was, I learned who I was not. I spent many years on both campuses feeling othered– not wealthy enough, not pretty enough, not smart enough. Not White enough.
At Northwestern and DePaul, I have spent energy and time suppressing my queerness. And to see lesbians on those stages– kissing in the rain and baring it all– I couldn’t help but mourn the time I spent trying to be anything else. Sometimes, the joys of representation are taxed by the grief of past erasure.
Indecent follows the rise of Sholem Asch’s God of Vengeance, from the first reading in 1906, to the first/final broadway performance in 1923, and beyond into the 1950s as the story reverberates through the people who love the play.
Throughout that vast stretch of time, Vogel spends no time holding the hands of her audience. The actors switch characters often. Their accents change every scene. It flows between play-within-a-play and canonical play fluidly. It’s more like a rollercoaster. She beckons me into the story, and I lean in from beginning to end.
As a Jew, I’m programmed to be aware of Jewish stories in proximity to the Holocaust. When the play began and the setting flashed in projection above the stage, I noted the year: 1906. Almost 30 years before the Holocaust. A safe story.
I don’t remember a time before I knew about the Holocaust. I don’t even remember learning about it. I was born knowing– born being told about the persecution of my people, and how I must stay vigilant to make sure it never happens again. Never happens to me.
The action of the play flies by feverishly. We begin in a bedroom in 1906, where Madje Asch praises her husband for his genius new play. In what feels like the blink of an eye, we travel to a cabaret in Berlin, then the broadway debut of God of Vengeance. At one point we find ourselves in a basement speakeasy with Lemml– the God of Vengeance stage manager– and acclaimed playwright Eugene O’Neill. The play yanks the audience around so fast that I lost track of my time-math. And all of a sudden, the play lands itself in the Łódź ghetto. It’s 1943.
It’s weird to not remember learning about genocide. To be desensitized to it by the time I hit childhood. But I wonder if– sometimes– to be desensitized to something early in life means to be hyper-sensitive to it later. This is certainly true for me with Holocaust narratives.
Inside the Łódź ghetto is the first time we see the rain scene. We’ve seen other scenes from God of Vengeance. Funnier scenes. Scarier scenes. Repeated ad nauseam as the play travels around the world. But in this moment, when making theater is a way of survival, the rain scene is the only one to exist. Everything else falls away.
Manke: Are you shivering, Rifkele?
Rifkele: I’m cold.
Manke: Let me wrap my body around you.
Prior to this scene, in the attic of an abandoned home in the ghetto, the company of actors begs for food from their audience. They know their audience, like them, has nothing. The only thing left to share is this script. They are cold themselves, but still they perform this scene with warmth and love.
In the last moments of Lemml’s life he returns to the rain scene. His pain brings forth such viscerality that the audience is shared in his visions; two women in love, sharing a life-changing, singular moment together while the world around them disappears. Only they exist, and they exist for each other.
Rifkele: Manke. I want you to teach me.
Manke: Wait, wait… let me brush your hair– like a bride’s hair with two long braids. Do you want me to Rifkele, do you want us to…?
Rifkele: Yes. Yes.
I’m struck by Lemml’s commitment to these women. The first time I saw it, I couldn’t understand. Why would a young Jewish man feel so invested in the story of lesbian prostitutes? On my second watch of the play, I understood.
([In] an impossibly long line. The smell of smoke and ash is thick in the air. Then the wind shifts directions. The troupe can smell the grass in the meadow. Lemml closes his eyes. He makes a wish.)
Lemml (softly): Please don’t let this be the ending…
(In his mind, only he can see… Rifkele and Manke burst out of the line. They escape. Lemml opens his eyes.)
(Ashes to ashes: the troupe returns to dust.)
Freedom is freedom of expression, freedom to be openly who you are. And while Lemml and the women in God of Vengeance were undoubtedly in different circumstances, it is clear that through Rifkele and Manke’s liberation, Lemml feels free. Through them, he can escape, even for a moment. And through him, so can I. I take stock of all of my own freedoms. I see how lucky I am to be alive today, both as a lesbian and a Jew. And I feel inspired as a writer to continue to tell stories like this as a means of paying this liberation forward.
This is a foundational belief in Judaism– the keeping and passing down of memory in order to move us forward. Towards safety, towards community, towards liberation.
I saw this play twice in a week. I experienced the real-life rise of anti-semitism the characters experienced in the play, I laughed at the silliness of the scenes from God of Vengeance, and I ooh-ed and ahh-ed at Vogel’s brilliance. As I watched the girls dance in the rain– the real rain, soaking the actors on stage through their clothes– I reflected on the walls that housed this production. The Catholic institution in which I earned my degree, performing a play about lesbian Jews. And even more, Jewish writers that champion lesbian stories. The university campus that served as the backdrop to my childhood, where I learned my prayers and sat shabbos among friends.
These were the stages where I first performed cello recitals, and had my first play readings. I found my voice on those stages, my passion for the arts. They also served me my first taste of Otherness. And while it feels like a win to finally see a semblance of myself on those stages, a pang in the back of my chest won’t let me fully give into the delight.
The social implications of two prestigious universities doing Indecent in the same season at the same time are too vast for me to pin down. But something about Indecent is calling us– a call to make theater accessible yet challenging, confrontational yet entertaining. Perhaps it’s the liberation the audience experiences while seeing it before their eyes onstage; the liberation of performing meaningful art, in Lemml’s case, and of finding yourself despite societal constraints, in the case of Manke and Rifkele.
Vogel seamlessly blends modern colloquialism with dense, historical scenery. She melds the past to the present in such a way that makes me optimistic for the future. At least, the future of theater.
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Photo by Justin Barbin at Northwestern University’s Virginia Wadsworth Wirtz Center for the Performing Arts.