“I am Venezuelan, I am Jewish, I am gay, I live in New York. I am the sum of all my cultures. I couldn’t write anything that didn’t incorporate all that I am,” playwright and director Moises Kaufman has stated.
He wears his identities proudly and is unconcerned about being labeled. The acclaimed author of Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde and a co-author of The Laramie Project, this month Kaufman has been in residence at Olney Theatre Center preparing for his latest theatrical launch: Carmen: An Afro-Cuban Jazz Musical.
While a musical based on an opera might seem a bit out of Kaufman’s realm, he sees the story of the legendary temptress and the two men who desire her as a tale of the ultimate outsider trapped in a society in flux.
An opera fan since he was 8 or 9, Kaufman recalls seeing his first Carmen at the Metropolitan Opera during a family visit to New Jersey. “I always loved the story and one thing you will note about my work — and it goes to my Judaism — is that I’m always very interested in the story of the outsider, the story of that person who doesn’t belong,” he said last week between rehearsals and script revisions.
This is not your grandmother’s Carmen, with its lilting Bizet score, energetic Spanish flavor and the iconic Gypsy Carmen at its center. This world premiere co-production of Olney Theatre Center and Kaufman’s Tectonic Theater Project telescopes the lengthy opera and jazzes it up with Afro-Cuban rhythms. The “Habanera” is deep-throated and dusky, nearly too hot to handle in Christina Sajous’ tough and sultry portrayal of Carmen. The “Toreador March” is now parade for a boxing champion and the musical is set in 1958 Havana, under the heavy-handed Batista regime. Carmen isn’t a Gypsy; she’s a smuggler, running guns to Fidel Castro’s brigades.
He came to this re-visioning of Carmen through friend and Grammy-winning jazz artist Arturo O’Farrill, a leading proponent of Afro-Cuban jazz in North America, who revised the Bizet score. “We had wanted to do a piece together for a long time,” Kaufman said. When they looked at Carmen they discovered many layers to explore.
The music now incorporates traditional rhythms and dances from meringue to salsa to Cuban be-bop.
Carmen is still a working-class woman an adherent of Santeria, the syncretic religious practices native to the island that blend Catholic religious traditions and West African Yoruban worship practices. She remains compellingly and fiercely independent as she uses her sexuality to navigate the male-dominated and corrupt worlds of mobsters, mercenaries and the military.
Kaufman loves the story imbued with untamed passions, desire, unrequited love and pure lust. But in adapting it for modern-day audiences, he looked at Carmen, the Gypsy woman at the opera’s center, as a metaphor for the stranger, the outcast getting by on the edges of society.
Born in Venezuela to Orthodox Jewish parents, Kaufman was acutely aware of his own outsider status.
“As a Jew growing up in Latin America in a Catholic country, I was the other, and by the time I was 9 or 10, I realized I was gay, so even within the Jewish community, I was the other.”
As a child, Kaufman attended a yeshiva and he credits the teaching style there for developing his penchant for delving deeply into his play subjects by questioning and looking at all sides of an argument.
“The yeshiva teaches you to be very rigorous about how you explore situations and it forces you to be very rigorous about how you read books and how you look at material,” he said. “In biblical studies, for example, you always have to look at various interpretations of a text. That kind of rigor has played its role very profoundly in my work.”
As a man who has wrestled with his multiple identities and his émigre status, Kaufman today says home is where his husband lives: in Manhattan, since the playwright/director is frequently on the road. But the question of “where is home” also unsettles him. “There is a part of me that realizes that I will always be an outsider,” he admitted, “so I am at home being an outsider.”
He continued: “Those feelings that other people have of belonging at home, it’s not to say that I haven’t had them. Yes, I belong with my family, I belong with the people I love, but that feeling of a home that belongs to me — I don’t think I’ve ever had it. And I find comfort in that.”
Being an outsider, like Carmen — and like his other leading characters Oscar Wilde and Matthew Shepherd — is empowering. “I think it puts you in a strong position. It forces you to not ever get complacent about the ideologies or the way of thinking about the people around you.”
Plus, he said, being an outsider is the ultimate Jewish experience.
“… Always traveling and never belonging anywhere,” Kaufman said, “it is at its very core a very Jewish experience.”
Carmen: An Afro-Cuban Jazz Musical, book, lyrics and direction by Moises Kaufman, music adapted by Arturo O’Farrill, choreography by Sergio Trujillo, at Olney Theatre Center in Olney through March 6. Ticket information: olneytheatre.org.