A swift-moving comic satire that pits two ambitious social media interns against each other marketing the state of Israel was the top vote-getter Sunday in the Northern Virginia Jewish Playwriting Contest.
Alexa Derman’s “Zionista Rising,” which received 20 votes, was one of three plays whose excerpts were shared with a small audience at the Pozez Jewish Community Center of Northern Virginia.
Mark Nadel, a lawyer for the FCC and an avid theater goer who sees about 60 plays annually, attended this 8th annual Northern Virginia Jewish Playwriting Contest for the first time.
“I was curious,” he said, “but I didn’t have the highest expectations and I was very impressed. I thought all three plays were impressive, even just hearing the excerpts.”
The other two plays were Carey Perloff’s “Vienna. Vienna. Vienna,” about three generations of women who travel to Vienna, Austria, to revisit the grandmother’s childhood, prewar home; and Beth Kander’s dark comedy, “Return (Teshuvah),” a modern-day dybbuk tale about memory, grief and guilt.
“While there are a lot of Jewish playwrights,” Nadel noted, “a competition like this brings out more plays and feedback for the writers, making more good material and better plays in the process.”
Takoma Park-based actor Sasha Olinick has been a reader for the Pozez JCC Community Reader Panel almost from its inception. This year he spent about 15 hours reading and commenting on the selected finalists’ plays to narrow down to the three read on Sunday.
“It’s exciting to hear the plays after reading them,” he said. “At times, I love the content of a play, but find that it doesn’t necessarily need to be a play. What I look for is how a playwright challenges form.”
Arlington resident Diane Carroad, an avid theater volunteer who served on the community reader panel, found each play unique, important and relevant, particularly to core themes the Jewish community is facing, including rising antisemitism.
“Aside from food, water and shelter, theater is what makes life better,” Carroad said. “Theater represents who we are … it is a community of diverse interests and backgrounds where everyone can sit together and share, agree, disagree, discuss ideas.”
Since 2011, the Jewish Plays Project sponsors a competition seeking out meaningfully Jewish plays for the English-speaking world. “When we ask audiences to vote,” said JPP artistic producer Illana Stein, “we are not looking for the best play, but for the play that sparks the most relevant conversations …. And the choices from cities around the country vary. Not one [JPP presenting] group chose the same three plays.”
Based in New York, JPP serves as an incubator for new plays with Jewish themes, ranging from dramas, comedies, experimental works, memory and history plays. The goal, Stein noted, is to get more Jewish plays produced on professional stages, around the United States and in English-speaking theaters the world over.
Since its founding, JPP panels have read approximately 1,800 plays from 1,000 playwrights based in 34 states and 10 countries. To date, 36 JPP plays have been fully professionally produced, including last year’s winner, Bess Welden’s “Madeleines,” which has a full production running in Bloomington, Ind. An earlier winner, “Trayf,” was part of the Edlavitch D.C. Jewish Community Center’s 2017-18 Theater J season.
The local winner is submitted to the national contest where the play with the most local votes is declared the Best Jewish Play of 2023. ■
Lisa Traiger is WJW’s arts correspondent.