Our ur-Jewish stories, those that we have been reading, interpreting and re-telling for millennia — inform and shape us. And these ancient stories of our biblical dysfunctional families — sibling rivalries, parents who play favorites, children who are estranged, divided families — aren’t all that different in many ways from problems we face in our contemporary relationships.
“The Joy That Carries You,” a locally grown world premiere on stage at Olney Theater Center’s Lab stage, feels absolutely contemporary with its interracial lesbian couple forging a relationship and dealing with two sets of parents, each with untenable expectations and demands.
Written by Montgomery County actor and spoken word poet Awa Sal Secka and frequent Olney Theater and MoCo-based actor/playwright Dani Stoller, “Joy” is a lively dramedy infused with linguistic flourishes akin to internal Shakespearean monologues in the guise of Sal Secka’s spoken word poetry. And, it digs into the current discourse on intersectionality without drifting into overly academic context.
Stoller plays Shiri, as an anxiety-riddled secular Jew in love with Alaia — the radiant Billie Krishawn — an office manager who keeps a journal filled with her private poetry. Shiri and Alaia are still discovering each other and while their time together is filled with smart, witty banter, their conversations are neither deep nor revelatory. Until it’s time for a meet-the-parents Thanksgiving dinner: Alaia is prepared to meet her lover’s Jewish father and stepmother, while Shiri dreads the ordeal and the overly “woke” sensitivities she’s sure her parents will display by trying too hard in front of her Black girlfriend. Alaia, long estranged from her own family, is more than ready to embrace her beloved Shiri’s parents.
If there are hints of the once-controversial 1967 dining-room drama “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” plot here, that’s no surprise. The film did inspire Stoller and Sal Secka as they developed “Joy.” Another undercurrent the work addresses: Black-Jewish relations — both the idealized moments — like when Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marched side-by-side with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. — and the rifts between these historically disenfranchised communities, among them the 1991 Crown Heights riots. Olney Theater’s detailed dramaturgical program notes — take time to read through them, they’re excellent — frame the issue as Black and Ashkenazi-Jewish relations, taking care to note that Jews of Color have different connections and discourse to their compatriots of color.
The set is attractively designed by Misha Kachman, who arranged the lab theater with stadium-style seating — the audience facing each other on two sides of the rectangular space. On stage, a basic middle class living room, dining room and kitchen serve to represent three households — Shiri and Alaia’s, and both sets of parents. Hanging above: blank picture frames that projectors fill in with alternating family photographs — baby pictures, school shots, faded portraits of ancestral grandparents — representing Shiri’s Jewish side and Alaia’s African-American churchgoing side.
Co-directors Jason Loewith and Kevin McAllister have guided the fine cast —including Theater J regulars Susan Rome and Michael Russotto as Shiri’s parents, and Lolita Marie and James J. Johnson as Alaia’s — with sensitivity and care as they wrestle with fraught and disintegrated familial ties, as well as the internal struggles each character faces.
And those joys, small ones captured in the play, like a perfect turn of phrase, or a late-night ice cream snack, can carry us forward amid the challenges and frustrations that life brings. And the large ones, built on family ties that form bonds even in the face of the deepest disagreements. While a few moments, particularly in the second act, need some tightening and directorial focus, “The Joy That Carries You” will leave many — including my seat mates on opening night — weepy during climactic fraught moments then uplifted, joy-filled even, especially with the radiant poetry that pulls this work together.
Shiri’s and Alaia’s parallel households deal with conflicts centered on race, sexual identity and more foundational issues of religious and cultural mores, which draw on longstanding generational traumas that have become engrained in the zeitgeist. Joy — as our society at large has discovered in these challenging recent years of racial reckoning, social isolation and deepening political divisions — is hard to come by. But joy remains a necessary good to strive for, making life worthwhile in the face of the opposite.
Jewish plays, like much of Torah, are our essential family dramas. They help us understand ourselves. They connect us with the broad sweep of our Jewish history and Jewish community. They allow us to wrestle with conflicts that cause rifts in our relationships, households and communities. And they enable us to understand and seek paths toward growth, healing … and, ultimately, joy, in doses minor and major. But, as we know from the Jewish wedding tradition of breaking a glass, joy cannot exist that is not tinged with sorrow. And that, too, carries us forward.
“The Joy That Carries You” by Awa Sal Secka and Dani Stoller, Olney Theater Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney, through June 12. Tickets begin at $54. Proof of vaccination and masking are required. Visit olneytheatre.org or call 301-924-3400.