Argentina was a haven for Jewish people at the end of the 19th century. Emigrés from throughout Eastern and Western Europe intermingled with natives and earlier settlers in the port city of Buenos Aires.
It was the birthplace of the soulful and sensual musical and dance form tango, which came to life in bordellos and dance halls of sketchy, lower-class neighborhoods. There new arrivals mingled with men of position – government officials, politicians, wealthy businessmen and prostitutes, who were coerced by Jewish gangs.
The world premiere of the musical Las Polacas: the Jewish Girls of Buenos Aires, at Teatro Hispano GALA at the Tivoli Theatre in Columbia Heights through June 28, draws from this historical era, revealing that Jews participated in an ignominious slave trade, bringing poor Eastern European young women to Buenos Aires. There, these women worked in bordellos or as street prostitutes; if they objected and tried to leave many were married off for a fee and sent to the country where they were isolated and abused.
Las Polacas, by Argentine playwright Patricia Suarez-Cohen with music and lyrics by GALA composer-in-residence Mariano Vales, is acted and sung in Spanish and English, with ample Yiddishisms thrown in. Surtitles projected above the actors help those of us not proficient in Spanish comprehend both sides of the action, though it may take a few minutes to get acclimated to keeping tabs on the actors and the translations.
Director Mariano Caligaris incorporates plenty of movement early in the play, as the actors sweep in and fill the stage with set designer Luciana Stecconi’s movable panels and antique furniture pieces, all set against a backdrop of yellowing postcards from Warsaw and other old country environs.
The performances are highly strung and heartfelt. Think of a Univision telenovela meeting an early 20th-century Yiddish shund, or melodrama. Yes, there’s scenery chewing and high drama, elevated voices and heightened pathos and the story of an innocent woman taken captive. Both the Latin and Yiddish cultures have a history in their theaters of producing high-strung family dramas, making this an interesting cultural fusion across linguistic and ethnic communities.
The Polaca, or Polish girl, at the center of the play is Rachela. Her story unfolds in two worlds six years apart: Poland 1917 and Buenos Aires 1923. A small town innocent, she had the great misfortune to have a greedy and heartless mother. Golde, the town’s matchmaker, or, perhaps better, supplier of girls for the sex trade, sells her own daughter to Schlomo, a handsome but ruthless pimp who brings Polish and other girls to Buenos Aires by telling them they will marry wealthy men. There is even a Yiddish phrase for it: shtille chupah or silent wedding, done quickly to get the girls going. Instead, Schlomo puts these duped women to work on the streets and docks, selling their bodies; then, he locks them up in his fabric shop basement where they sit in bloomers and camisoles waiting for johns.
Joining Rachela in that dark, cluttered basement is Margot, more experienced and sophisticated. They both opine in song and dialogue about the trade, missing their homes, wishing for freedom, and about who is the best paying customer. Rachela hasn’t given up on her goal of becoming a world-famous singer. The music includes a pastiche of 17 songs, among them a poignant tango she sings in Spanish: “You snatched the words of love from my lips …/Take me with you once and for all/Hold me in your arms and never let me go.” As Rachela, Samantha Dockser has a lovely soprano and emanates a sense of vulnerability and fragility, while her compatriot, Margot, the well-endowed Ana Fontan, sizzles with her husky voice and low-cut attire.
Joshua Morgan’s Micah, an acquaintance from Rachela’s Polish village, provides political tension. The resident anarchist and Bolshevik, he spars with well-dressed mustachioed Schlomo, played by Martin Ruiz with a generous dollop of amoral panache. Micah’s communist leanings serve as a subtext to the stories of these abused women at the play’s center.
Vales’s music treads in both the Argentine passion and heartbreak of tango and the minor key pathos of klezmer. The excellent five-piece musical ensemble, led by conductor and keyboardist Howard Brietbart, features the evocative bandoneon, an accordion-like instrument that melds Europe and South America, just as the play does.
The story is compelling, particularly because it draws on a long overlooked episode in history that paints some Jews in an unflattering light. But playwright Suarez-Cohen’s structure of flash-forwards and flashbacks makes it difficult to follow. Las Polacas is a remarkable Jewish story of perseverance, of young women duped into traveling thousands of miles only to become trapped in what today we call human trafficking, and their struggle to overcome their adversity.
The 1920s were the peak of the Jewish involvement in prostitution rings in Argentina, with 430 pimps running 2,000 brothels with 30,000 women that they controlled throughout Argentina. This episode occurred more than a century ago, and the Jewish community of that time tried to assuage it with the creation of the Jewish Association for the Protection of Children and Women. Yet, Caligaris, the play’s director, points out that human trafficking continues around the world today; it simply has shifted its targeted victims.
Las Polacas: The Jewish Girls of Buenos Aires, runs through June 28 at the GALA Theatre at the Tivoli Theater, 3333 14th St. NW, Washington. For ticket and other information, call 202-234-7174 or visit www.galatheatre.org.