When fledgling playwright Talisa Friedman submitted her first full-length play to the 2021 Jewish Plays Project competition, the contest rules were so unusual and complicated, she wasn’t sure of what she got herself into.
She needn’t have worried. Friedman, a District-born, Los Angeles-based writer and actor whose roles range from Sally Bowles in “Cabaret” to Ophelia in “Hamlet,” ended up sharing the Jewish Plays Project first-place award with Brooklyn, N.Y., writer Alice Eve Cohen. In its 10 years, the contest, in which the Pozez Jewish Community Center of Northern Virginia has participated, has received about 1,800 scripts with Jewish characters, content or stories. But it’s never had a tie, until now.
JPP’s New York-based founder and artistic director, David Winitsky, said, while most of the works are not likely to be staged at top Washington venues, such as Theater J or Arena Stage, “every one of them represents a significant investment of time and energy and creativity from someone who cares about Jewish life in some way. Capturing that and understanding what that effort means and what it says about the Jewish community and the ways that our community intersects with the other communities that we are part of is really
Jewish plays, he said, are a snapshot of who we are as a people — good, bad, religious, secular.
Winitsky has seen his share of Holocaust plays and plays dealing with Jewish historical moments or figures. No Holocaust plays nor “ethnically stereotypical comedy” — Yiddishe mamas — are considered by him and his panels of readers. One of the reasons the Jewish Plays Project was founded was to seek out and support writers of stories relevant to a 21st-century point of view.
Inspiration for Friedman’s “Who By Fire” came from her recent marriage to a non-Jew and the birth of her son.
“That brought up a lot of feelings for me about my place and what my role was in the broader scope of Judaism. Also, what role does Judaism have in my life? Suddenly things that I always took for granted growing up with two Jewish parents — like keeping kosher for Passover and not eating pork — became conscious choices.”
She drew on her own guilt, confusion and fear of what she said was “the idea of diluting the pool of Jews” for her kitchen-table dramedy that follows a conflicted Jewish family over a course of holiday dinners from Rosh Hashanah to Thanksgiving, Chanukah and Passover.
Cohen, who shares the top prize with Friedman, has been working and pausing on “Oklahoma Samovar” for about two decades. Drawing on the unusual story of her mother’s Latvian ancestors settling in Oklahoma, her play weaves together the story of Jake and Hattie, who fled the Russian army to become the only Jews in the Oklahoma land rush, with that of Emily, a 22-year-old student interviewing her 90-year-old aunt about the family’s history.
An award-winning author, memoirist and playwright, Cohen has also written for Nickelodeon and CBS and composed music for theater, dance and film. Her memoir, “What I Thought I Knew,” was lauded as one of Oprah Magazine’s 25 best books for summer.
While the Brooklyn-based writer’s works often contain a feminist streak, she said, “’Oklahoma Samovar’ is a very Jewish play. There’s no question about it. While I sometimes wrestle with the idea [of being known as] a Jewish writer … sometimes the play or the whatever I’m writing tells me in no uncertain terms which direction I’m going …. This is the story of my mother’s ancestors settling in Oklahoma. In my memoir, I asked my mother, ‘Why didn’t you tell me the story?’ I discovered things by writing the play that led me back to Oklahoma.”
The next step, Winitsky said, is to nurture these plays, particularly co-winners Cohen and Friedman — to full productions.
“We’re so excited about the winners,” Winitsky said. “Both of these playwrights really embraced our process, embraced the questions that we’re asking about Jewish life and were amazing advocates for their own plays. Both plays have really rich lives ahead.”