26 December 2018


Despite its tumultuousness almost globally, 2018 was a year of accomplishments for me. I earned my master's from NYU Tisch this year, after a lightning-quick program of only nine months. I've applied to two Ph.D. programs in hopes of continuing that study. I've been working enough to survive in New York City, which is a great feat alone. Some of this work has put me in front of the camera, an avenue I'd like to explore more going into the future. I've been directing and teaching, singing and playing, acting and writing—using all of my skills to put together an artistic and academic life.

In 2019, I'm launching Rogue Pedagogy to further explore that artistic and academic life. As I wrote in my recent application essays:
Rogue seeks to exploit the primary relationship that defines theatre, according to Jerzy Grotowski and others. An example of this definition can be found in Tadashi Suzuki’s essay “On Acting”—theatre is the specific space where the actor and spectator interact. The actor-spectator relationship is explored by a number of artist-theorists in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, including Augusto Boal, who writes about turning the spectator into an actor through his interventions such as Forum Theatre. By utilizing performance strategies from these and other artist-theorists through the lens of [Diana] Taylor’s work (and others’), Rogue hopes to produce theatrical and workshop experiences which can foster learning. Learning is especially important given the current political climate, where so much of the discord between people can be found in educational disparity. (Some of this has to do with the will to learn, following Rancière, who rightly notes that learning can only take place if the learner has the will to learn. Where there is no will to learn, there is no learning.)
Through learning, we learn about each other. By learning about each other, we become more tolerant of each other—not the sort of tolerance which allows bigotry and hatred to flourish, but rather the sort of tolerance which understands difference as merely a part of the human experience. Learning encourages curiosity, which breeds understanding. This is why, for me, there is no greater contribution which can be made to humanity than the fostering of learning; and this is why I feel it is so important to share performance’s power to change minds—as both a cure and a warning.
I'm starting 2019 off with a stage show, The Buddy Holly Story at the Engeman Theater in Northport, N.Y. I'll be continuing my work with American Immersion Theater and singing with Calvary-St. George's Parish in New York City. And, of course, Jade Rosenberg and I are still writing a musical we hope to have finished in 2019.

So, may the new year be filled with abundance, peace, and hope—for you, for me, for everyone!

25 December 2018


My relationship with the concept of marriage is a bit fraught. I went through my first divorce at the age of thirteen, when my dad decided he didn't want to be with my mom anymore. At the time, he painted it like it was Mom's decision, but that's not really what happened. My second divorce occurred when I was just out of my undergrad. That time it was my stepmom who made the call, but it wasn't without reason; and, being older, I was able to see her side very clearly. My dad's actions forced me out of his circle as well, and it's been strained ever since, even as now he is on his third family. I went through my own divorce beginning about five years ago, an ordeal that left me psychologically scarred.

A lot has happened since. A lot of healing has taken place, and in the past year and a half, I have felt myself again. It's been a journey, and I am grateful for all the stops along the way, all the people I have met, and all the friends who have stuck with me despite the darkness and pain I've carried with me.

They say that, historically, marriage is a business transaction. It's a merging of assets to create a larger fortune, or to expand one's territory, or to gain prestige. The relationship between marriage and love has been argued extensively. Romeo and Juliet might be about that, though A Midsummer Night's Dream takes the concept to its absurd conclusion—and still ends with all the couples neatly arranged, all the love settled and ordained. I've been of the mind for some time that love can be true, lasting, and even consecrated without the mantle of marriage thrown upon it. Yet, marriage has its visibility in the law, and so I see the benefit of getting married as an addition to the love two people feel, not as a necessity.

This is all to say that I've met someone. She's a perfect fit, made to measure, a match I would go to the grave with. As much as I know there is no real need for marriage to sanctify our love, I understand its importance. The act of marrying is one that J.L. Austin recognized as one of the basic performative utterances—in being said, it is done. The marriage ceremony is all performance, but that performance has a certain power, a particular meaning. It is a ritual which many communities perform, though in different ways and with slightly different meanings and purposes around the globe. There is a spiritual aspect which weaves with the communal aspect. It allows the community to participate in the shared love, and, for those who believe, it invites the divine presence into a shared life.

It is hard to know what the future holds, but having a kindred spirit share your path makes it better. I hope we may be able to always see that benefit, and to always see the good in each other, and support each other through the darkness and pain which always inevitably arises. Patience, understanding, and love is the only way to heal the world.

21 December 2018

Reflection on a Final in Fred Moten's Class

An excerpt from the scroll.

Some of the members of the class put together an eighteen foot scroll comprised of the work done through the course, as inspired by or adjacent to our work. Palimpsest is seen throughout in the layering of text and images (and textual images). There is no sense of where to begin or end, given the orientation of the text in all directions. The piece is disorienting in its orientation and presentation. The invitation was made to have other members of the class add to the scroll, participation being part of the piece. There could be a circumvention of the typical mode of knowledge production expected of the university subject: the book or the paper does not need to be crammed into a particular format. This piece evades the capture of the university as knowledge object, though might be subsumed under the category of artistic work (if they could in some way monetize its creation). If the collective work of the piece points to a sort of absurdism, it is the absurdism of the institution itself which is the piece’s focus. The expression of frustration permeating the piece does not obscure the evidence that knowledge has been transferred or produced in the process.

The only element that might not be entirely evident in looking at the object is the presence of an indication of a palimpsestic time. This temporality is more evident in the performance of the object’s creation. Conversation goes on around as the object is added to, appended, modified only through addition and not erasure. Layers placed on top of other layers still afford the spectator or viewer an opportunity to examine all the pieces, the bits which form the assemblage of the piece. The symbolic gesture of the piece is one of continuation—of continuing study, of a communal always working towards. In this way, the piece retains both its performativity on the outsider and performance within its community. The point at which addition to the piece ends confers upon the community its move from performers to spectators in the performance being acted on by its residual performativity. Importantly, no one has an ideal vision for this piece, no utopian horizon. The vision is mere existence.

4 May 2018

26 October 2018

Sacred Space

When I was teaching high school in California, I attended a workshop on the Get Lit program as part of the regular training that teachers undergo to keep their educational skills fresh and relevant. Get Lit exposes high schoolers, especially those considered “at risk,” to poetry in an attempt to get them to respond and connect to the world around them. One of the things we talked about was creating a “sacred space” for writing. The thought had never occurred to me that we artists, writers included, create these spaces for ourselves to work.

When I think about the term “sacred space,” I immediately think of a church sanctuary, being the traditional form of the sacred space—that is, it is a space reserved for the sacred. It is infused with spirituality in some way; reverence hangs in its air. We go there to worship. It stands to reason that we might designate more than one place for the sacred; and, as the act of creation might be thought of inherently as divinely inspired, it's no wonder we should seek a sacred space in which to do our own creation.

The act of writing, like other arts, is a release. It's a means for us to deal with our days, our lives, through more than just talking about it. If we write poetry, we may just write it for ourselves, but the effect is still there. (The effect amplifies when you share your work and someone else says, “I understand.”) When we write, we become our own creators, using these tools called words to make sense of our world, or create new worlds entirely. As we might know, the Abrahamic God was fairly judicious with a certain spark of creation. Here are some lessons we might glean about creation and sacred space from the Big Guy Upstairs.

God creates in God's own time. As creators, we need to find our own time to create. If you write or create art better in the morning, then make that your time. Block it out on your calendar.

When God creates a sacred space, God starts with light. But you might start with furniture, or simply location. Find a place that feeds you. A sacred space should feel spiritual, calming, connected. When I was living in Los Angeles, my sacred space is usually outdoors; if I didn't want to go far, I'd sit out on my balcony, in the chair I bought at a church yard sale on Long Island. In the Bronx, where I live now, my office area has plenty of windows to let in the light, and I use incense to create a pleasing spiritual atmosphere. You might designate another part of your home, a corner of a room, perhaps, near a window. Put furniture and objects there that feed your soul. Play with the light and art on the walls. Find your spirit and your quiet center. Maybe music or ambient sound, like a waterfall, will help. Maybe some candles can set the mood. Once you have the perfect combination, hold onto it. This is your sacred space.

Attached to your sacred space is the idea of ritual. For some, the fact that they write in their sacred space daily is ritual enough. That doesn't do it for me, and the Bible is filled with references to God's love of the ritual. So, come up with a ritual for your sacred space. It might be a prayer, or yoga, or some other meditation. It might be something tactile like doing a quick puzzle or washing your hands. As for me, my ritual is making coffee or tea. Find a ritual that speaks to you and your space.

Finally, God saw his creation was good. We don't always produce the best work. Not everything we write is the next Great Gatsby, and not everything we paint is Un dimanche après-midi à l'Île de la Grande Jatte. (Sunday in the Park with George, anyone?) But, as creators, we have to affirm our work positively. We did it. There's no reason to put down our own work. The act of creation is in itself good, so why downplay it?

And for us, in our sacred spaces, we must hold onto hope that, whatever we do, we can make the world a better place, one stroke of creation at a time.

Adapted from an article originally published in The Good News, the newsletter of Faith Presbyterian Church of Valley Village, Sept. 2015.

08 June 2018

More on Newark in the 1960s

Here is another piece written by my grandfather and typed up by my grandmother on 9 June 2010.

by Rev. Harold W. Story

In the years of the 1960s, the racial prejudice and discrimination here in the United States of America was to be faced in turbulent and highly explosive events.

I was serving as Pastor of the Memorial West Presbyterian Church, 7th Avenue and South Orange Avenue, Newark, New Jersey, from 1962 to 1969. Racial riots broke out in cities across the country. Tensions increased in Newark also, and in the mostly black populated neighborhood where the church was located. White vs. Black. For example, I was elected to be a Trustee of Area #3 Community Center. At our first meeting blacks took over in our place.

There were threats to invade the church and disrupt worship. I was told that they could use our church building to better serve their community. I had tried to make our congregation do that by being a more inclusive and welcoming church to all persons from the area.

I used the word “inclusive” rather than integrated as I believe this was the meaning of Jesus Christ for us; for example, Jesus’ parable of the “Good Samaritan” who came to help someone—a Jew, perhaps—as they discriminated against the Samaritans (much like Jew vs. Arab today). Two persons went by without helping the man, but finally one not of his race or religion came to his rescue.

In a society where segregation was so widespread, I tried to make a difference—hoping that members of our church would work at change among the races of our society. Many black people had moved from the South up to the North seeking better treatment—only to find the same racial problems there.

Martin Luther King was spokesman for racial equality as a challenge to the nation. The Greater Newark Council of Churches members were asked to go to Alabama to join Dr. King in the March from Selma to Montgomery that was held on March 21-25, 1965. I was on my way and met a woman member of my Church. She asked where I was going; I told her I was going to go with a group from Newark to march with Dr. King in Alabama. She told me I should not go; my work was in Newark. I told her I needed to help ease the racial problems in both places.

We flew to an airport in Alabama close to where we joined the march for the final two days. There were many protesters to meet us. The newspapers claimed we were trouble-makers, socialists/communists who came to stir up trouble. As we walked behind Dr. King, I saw both black and white persons along the route watching our peaceful march. Fortunately, our group did not face the attacks as some had, although we were shouted at by angry protestors in the crowds.

Governor George Wallace had called in police to block the protesters. In contrast, we assembled en masse to hear Dr. Martin Luther King give one of his deeply moving speeches. (Also, earlier, in 1963, I went to Washington, D.C., to hear Rev. Dr. King give another great speech, “I Have a Dream,” at our nation’s capitol.) Sadly, though, Martin Luther King was killed on April 4, 1968. His dream is still alive as some of us are trying to make it a reality—for all persons regardless of race—in our American society.


Just one experience I had during the time of the inter-racial troubles in Newark in 1967. I was down the street from my Church, walking as other clergy were to help ease the tension in the City. I saw a group of people gathered in front of a Chinese laundry, looking into the windows of the store. Two dogs were barking inside. I asked why the people were there and was told that they were concerned about the owner, whether he was alright—dead or alive.

I then saw a convoy of the National Guard trucks coming—called then to restore order within Newark. I motioned to the men in the first jeep to stop. Two came over to us and asked what I wanted. I told them the people were concerned about the safety of the Chinese owner—whether or not he was in the store and alright. Also, whether his dogs should be fed. Two of the soldiers drew their rifles ready to shoot, but I stopped them, I stopped them—we only were concerned to help the man. They lowered their guns.

I asked them to wait; I went to the corner candy store to use the phone … I had been told that the laundry man’s name was Mr. Lee. I knew there were Lees who were members of the First Presbyterian Church of Newark on Broad Street. So I scanned the Lees until I found one at an address near the church. I phoned and asked the person if a Mr. Lee who owned the laundry on South Orange Avenue in Newark was there. He answered, “I am his cousin; he is here with us and is alright.” How about that!

I went back to tell the crowd and the soldiers that Mr. Lee was alright safe with his cousin. The National Guardsmen left. A day later I walked by the laundry store and saw that bullets had shattered the windows, and bullet holes were in the laundry upon the shelves.


I tell this to say that the caring for others can be done by and for anyone regardless of their race or religion, thus to make real the hope of Dr. Martin Luther King and the teaching of Jesus Christ in their speeches and sermons.

Remembering Harold W. Story

A remembrance written by my grandfather on 9 July 2010. He passed away on 8 June 2018 at the age of 91. This was typed by my grandmother; the ellipses are in the original.

by Rev. Harold W. Story

I had begun studies for the Presbyterian Ministry at Bloomfield College and Seminary, Bloomfield, New Jersey, in 1944. I had an exemption from the military draft as a student preparing for church ministry. I received a draft notice, so I volunteered to go into military service (choosing the Navy) during World War II, serving from 1945 to 1949. I became a Photographer’s Mate 3/C—had served at Camp Detrick (Chemical Warfare), Frederick, Maryland, after training at Boot Camp, Bainbridge, Maryland. Trained at Naval Photo School, Pensacola, Florida. I then served at Naval Air Field at Jacksonville, Florida. Assigned to the Naval Photographic Center, Washington, D.C. I worked on printing machines doing reels of film—top secret motion pictures, including atomic tests and missile tests.

I resumed study at Bloomfield College before summer of 1950, when I was recalled into the Navy. I reported to the Brooklyn, N.Y., Navy Yard. We boarded a train at Hoboken, New Jersey, taking us across the country to San Francisco, California. There, we went onto a transport ship taking us over the Pacific Ocean to Yokosuka, Japan. We rode by train across Japan to an as-yet-unknown destination. During that train ride, we crossed the city of Hiroshima. I looked out the window to see the horrible destruction that had been caused by one of the atomic bomb blasts. (The other was at Nagasaki.) I shall never forget those sights—reminding me of some of the most extreme kinds of human warfare. Will we never learn from war that peace is so much finer?

In 1950, we were taken to report aboard the USS Eldorado—a communications ship (Admiral’s Flag Ship of that fleet of ships). We still were not told where we were going … I was below decks as we crossed the waters … finally, we were one of many ships joined in the amphibious attack against the Communists. I was in a war! This was the invasion by our forces at Inchon, Korea.

I could not see the war, being below decks … but I had fear as I heard the sounds of gunfire from the battleship and other ships as the troops went ashore.

I just had to see what was happening, so I went up the ladder to the main deck above. I prayed for those who were directly fighting the enemy and for the support of the other military men engaged in the war. I attended services held by the Chaplain. I was thankful that I had faith in God to help me.

Later, I was sent ashore to photograph landing craft, the many homeless refugees, the destruction. As I walked on the shore a man yelled to me, “Watch out!” There was a mine wire sticking up out of the mud a few feet away from me. I owe him for saving me. I went into a courtyard of an orphanage which was surrounded by buildings. I stood there alone when suddenly many children were looking at me from the windows. They were laughing at me … I was told they had never seen a red-headed person like me before.

Back at the photo lab aboard the Eldorado, I processed, developed and printed many pictures. One most interesting thing we did—a South Korean spy came back from the headquarters of the North Korean enemy with microfilm pictures which gave information, including numbers of troops, ships in North Korea and China. We processed these. General Douglas MacArthur wanted the U.S.A. to attack within China. President Harry Truman called MacArthur back home, refusing to attack China—although many Chinese had killed and wounded our American military personnel.

One day I became very sick. Yellow jaundice had colored my skin…I had acute hepatitis. I was put on a stretcher, put onto a line from our ship taking me across to another ship. I was taken to a Naval Hospital in Japan…near death. I was brought back to health and life with good care and a time of rest and recuperation at a small camp in the Japanese countryside.

In 1951, the war was over for me, as we left by ship for return to the U.S.A. We were at San Diego where I served at the Naval Air Station until my medical discharge on December 6, 1951.


After my experiences, good and bad, in the Navy, I was granted a discharge from the Naval Reserve to resume my ministerial studies at Bloomfield College and Seminary.

I graduated from Bloomfield College in 1954. And best of all, on September 11, 1954, I was married to Ruth Haycock. I chose her to be my wife. She has been so good to me for these years, 56 years this September 2010, we have been together.

I was graduated from Bloomfield Seminary in 1958 and ordained to the Gospel Ministry of the United Presbyterian Church on my birthday, July 1, 1958.

I have been honored to serve as a Pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Pittston, Pennsylvania (April 13, 1958 – June 24, 1962); the Memorial Presbyterian Church (after a merger, becoming the Memorial-West Presbyterian Church) of Newark, New Jersey (June 24, 1962 – May 27, 1969); and the Burlington Presbyterian Church of Burlington, New Jersey (May 27, 1969 – June 3, 1979). Clergy member of Lackawanna, Pennsylvania; Newark and West Jersey, New Jersey; and Long Island, New York, Presbyteries, respectively.

I received a call to become a Chaplain at the United Presbyterian Residence at Woodbury (Long Island), New York in the spring of 1979, starting in June of that year. This was a Geriatric Medical Care facility. Then I was a Protestant Chaplain at A. Holly Patterson Home for the Aged at Uniondale (Long Island), New York (November 1, 1989 – January 1, 1992). I last served as a Protestant Chaplain at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center at Northport (Long Island), New York (August 2, 1993 – January 31, 2001). Active member of Long Island Presbytery, New York, now retired.

These were some of my experiences serving God and Country.

Goodbye, Granddad

My grandfather, Rev. Harold W. Story, has passed away this morning at the age of nearly 92.

He was many things in his life. He enlisted in the Navy at the end of World War II and served as a photographer during the Korean War. He became a Presbyterian minister and served in Newark during the riots. He always found the good in the world. Everyone could laugh, and he was just as fearless dressed in a clown costume as he was in Newark and Korea. He always wanted to share joy, but was just as adept at dealing with serious situations. You might say that his real battlefield experience came in Newark during the riots, protecting people of color in his church and community, and flying to Washington and Alabama to march with Dr. King. He was no radical; he was just trying to be decent to his fellow humans. Clowning was a way of getting people to laugh, regardless of their language or background, and maybe come together in that laughter. “Will we never learn from war,” he once said, “that peace is so much finer?”

Raise a mug of coffee for Hal today, and tell your worst jokes. Make someone laugh. The world will still be a better place for it.

12 April 2018

Technology in Jasbir Puar's Right to Maim

(Edited from remarks delivered in a lecture discussion on 10 April 2018.)

The grip of technology is all around us. The word “technology” has come to mean (according to the OED) “The application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes, especially in industry.” The root word “tekne” brings us more to the idea of art or craft. There is an idea of making, of how to make. In Right to Maim, Jasbir Puar explores the application of technology—technology’s uses for better, technology’s uses for “It Gets Better.” We want everything “bigger, better, faster,” as the old entrepreneurial expression goes. But technology is more insidious than that. Technology at the level of the everyday, of the human, can enable what Puar refers to as “slow death”—this “mode of neoliberal and affective capacitation or debilitation.” “Technology,” she says, “acts both as a machine of debility and capacity and as portals of affective openings and closures” (2). In this way, for Puar, technology seems to define what can alter the body, whether through medical procedure or mere use. “The distinctions or parameters between disabled and non-disabled bodies shift…scientifically, as prosthetic technologies of capacity, from wheelchairs to cell phones to dna testing to steroids, script and rescript what a body can, could, or should do” (xiv-xv). This computer I’m writing on becomes an extension of my bodily capacity (and/or debility), just as the computer or phone or tablet you’re reading on does yours. These terms capacity and debility work not necessarily against each other, as opposites; rather, Puar stages them as intertwined states of being which are in turn modulated by these concepts of technology and slow death. In her engagement of technology, she outright refuses what she calls “straightforward political cants”—I’m seeing the horse running off into the sunset at the end of a western—“straightforward political cants of a rational public sphere.” Here, she points to what might parallel a certain understanding of how nonsense works or can work; I’m thinking, too, about her explication of a temporality that is expressly non-chronological—a sort of nonsense time.

One of our main themes we’re discussing is this idea of holding multiple sensations, so I just wanted to look at a technological instance in the text. In the introduction, Puar is talking about the suicide of Tyler Clementi at Rutgers University. On p. 4, she introduces this concept of lifelogging—the main activity of social media, right? We have to tell each other what we’re up to, how we’re feeling, etc. There is a struggle between the public and the private; these are my private thoughts, and in the privacy of my own home, I can post them to social media. That makes my private thoughts public in a way that might not necessarily make me feel like I am ceding my privacy. In this way, according to Puar on p. 5, social media creates “simultaneous sensations of exposure (the whole world is watching) and alienation (no one understands).” The sensations of exposure and alienation are held at the same time. She goes on to describe this use of social media as an extension of one’s self or body as “cyborgian,” and, as we see in Clementi’s case, the effects of social media use leads ultimately to an effect on the body. We are changed by technology use at the level of the quotidian, having noticeable effects on the affective tendencies of bodies. We are constantly forced to identify ourselves on social media—whether we choose to be truthful or not, the act of self-identification alters us further. Social media becomes a way of practicing different identities, trying things out, using the response of other social media users to judge ourselves. What Puar calls “lifelogging” becomes (or has become) an intrinsic piece of how we become who we are.

These systems created between the body and technology are described by Puar as “action-at-a-distance technologies.” Clementi’s privacy was intruded upon in the cyber-peeping on his sexual activity, through a distance of cable and electronics; Clementi announces his intention to kill himself via the same technology. Puar argues that this is a form of touching, a new form, perhaps. The touching happens because the body is extended through this action-at-a-distance technology. It is as though Ravi and Wei were looking through Clementi’s window, hands on the glass on which Clementi would later write his note. There is a folding of space and time, as Fred Moten might suggest.

This idea that technology hails the era of the posthuman might be accurate, as more and more we tether ourselves to technology and become more “cyborgian.” But Puar also points out the critique of posthumanism as still existing in the realm of a colonial mindset, where, quoting Weheliye, the posthuman “frequently appears as little more than the white liberal subject in techno-informational guise” (30). And of course, there is Wynter’s assessment that we have yet to approach anything like a radical humanism at all (29). There may be much to gain from thinking in a posthumanist mindset, but much still has to be done to revise what is thought of as human first. As technology improves to further extend our bodies and our lives, we are faced with the prospect that none of us really can fit the mold of complete ability; the body singularly exists in a state of unachieved potential. As Puar says on p. 15, “there is no such thing as an ‘adequately abled’ body anymore.”

The push for individuals to make and remake their own bodies necessitates, as Puar notes on p. 50, the making and remaking of the larger bodily assemblages that allow the individual bodies to exist. She calls for a “formulation…of new somatechnologies” which refuse neoliberal configurations of “body” and “society.” The real trouble is how to upend a system upon which one relies—a problem Puar states on p. 35 in regards to how trans bodies rely on the “medical-industrial complex” which simultaneously brings them life and death.

Work Cited
Puar, Jasbir K. The Right to Maim: Disability, Capacity, Debility. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2017.

26 February 2018

Music, Allusion, and Repetition in Indecent

“Though this early-20th-century Yiddish play had dazzled Greenwich Village audiences in 1922, the show’s producers worried that it might be too provocative for the less bohemian folk of Midtown; a pivotal love scene between two women was deleted from the script, much to the distress of members of the company. … Yes, that notorious scene that never made it to the main stem, even in the licentious Jazz Age, is fully rendered here — and not just once but in an assortment of fuguelike variations…. The dominant note of this erotic encounter isn’t prurience, though; it’s piety.” —Ben Brantley, The New York Times (18 April 2017)
Paula Vogel and Rebecca Taichman’s Indecent is a play about a play; but, of course, it’s more than that. Playing at Yale Repertory Theatre before its own (non-contentious) run on Broadway, Indecent takes as its subject the events surrounding the production of Sholem Asch’s Got fun nemoke (God of Vengeance). That play, written in Yiddish when Asch was in his twenties, went on to tour Europe—even after writers in the Jewish community tried to persuade Asch to burn it—before landing in New York in 1922. The attempted Broadway transfer ended with the arrest of the actors and confiscation of scripts. Vogel and Taichman’s work seeks to retell the history of that play using a small company of actors playing many different parts and three musicians trained in the idioms of klezmer music.

One of my first impressions of the overall piece after I had seen it was how powerful it is; or, I suppose, how powerful it’s meant to be; or how powerful its creators wished it to be. Any piece which uses as a plot point the Holocaust certainly runs the risk of being described as powerful, immense, even unfathomable. The stories told in Indecent are told in an innovative way, mostly chronologically, but also disparately, as vignettes with connecting material in between, using projections to fill in gaps and provide translation as needed. I did feel like some of this connecting material was superfluous or distracting to the overall arc of the play; I would have preferred a more-fleshed-out examination of the central themes, but it is possible these connecting bits served to give the piece its own culture and vernacular. Shuffling between at least three languages (English, Yiddish, and German, though there may have been more), it might have been necessary to provide a unifying language for the audience and actors to agree on—the unifying language of music and dance. The most effective material landed when the whole company performed together, because there was a sense of the company working as a whole team, a vital theme in retelling this story.

The music is an important element establishing a sense of the community involved. Klezmer music has a particular feel and pulse, being first and foremost a variety of dance music. The king of klezmer is the clarinet, but a number of other instruments are used traditionally, including violin and accordion. The music in Indecent is not all klezmer, however. The show’s playbill has only one note about the music (aside from copyrights), which is the following:
The song “Wiegala,” heard near the conclusion of Indecent, was written by Ilse Weber, a nurse at the Children’s Hospital at Theresienstadt. She sang this lullaby for the children in the wards. When it came time for the children to be transported to Auschwitz, Ilse Weber volunteered to go with them. It is said she sang this song in line to the chambers.
This might be an indication that every detail of Indecent has been thought of in order to achieve a particularly strong affective response from the audience.

The set and lighting lend an atmosphere of undusted furniture in an attic. A large, low platform covers most of the stage. The finish is dark wood. The furniture is rustic. A mist hangs in the air. No masking hides the wings from view. The brick wall in the back is the only backdrop. Something which struck me was the use of projections throughout, whether as supertitles, as title cards, or, sometimes, as even part of the performance. In projecting these words, they became actions in the play themselves, performing in certain ways so as to affect the audience, but also seeming to affect the actors as well. At a certain moment, a musician might play a certain tone, and the scene will freeze. Caption: “A blink in time.”

At the top of the piece, as the audience filters in with their sippy cups of wine and boxes of candy from the bar, the company sits upstage in a stoic line, facing the audience. There is a sense that these are characters frozen in time, but then one moves slightly and the sense changes to one of waiting. Now both spectator and actor are waiting for the play to begin, together. As the lights dim, the cast stands, and we see dust fall off of and out of their clothes. Initially, I perceived this as a bit of humor to start things off: The musicians start up a klezmer tune and the actors shake the dust off themselves from sitting so long before telling the story. But then, much later, the acting company has been sent to an extermination camp, and the dust falls once more out of their clothes—now clearly their own ash. The actors before us are ghosts, the reassembled smoke and ash from the chimneys of genocide. That we’ve seen the company acting, dancing, and singing together the whole while makes the moment even more heart-wrenching for some reason. We waited for the show to start together; is this the way it has to end?

At this moment in the play is also the only piece of recorded music used in the show (at least, as far as I perceived), and it seems an odd choice: a few bars of the title number from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! There is no line of dialogue or projection to indicate why the music cue is played; this piece seems to want even more explanation. What the casual theatre-goer might not connect: The extermination camp segment takes place in 1943, which is the same year Oklahoma! opens on Broadway. The use of this music cue seems to say, “At the same time as these events you’re seeing took place in Poland, people here in America were seeing Oklahoma! for the first time.” That is to say, while genocide was taking place elsewhere, “regular Americans like you, and you,” stood idly by—a theme which, as it happens, repeats itself frequently throughout the history of our troubled nation, even today. As for the use of this music cue to indicate all of this, I can’t be certain an audience understands; perhaps it goes by like so many other pieces in the show, as just another artsy thing they are doing.

Repetition is a device used extensively throughout the play. The scandalous love scene is played three times, in three different ways, with the final time (fittingly, at the end) being the most fully realized: the scene is meant to take place in the rain, which the technical staff graciously supplies for this ultimate iteration. While it is the most fully realized version the audience sees, it also occurs as an outward manifestation of something happening inside Asch. It is unclear whether this is a product of memory or imagination. I was reminded of the idea of ritual purification in Judaism; only after washing can the body enter the temple. The rite of purification cleanses both the body of physical uncleanliness and the soul of spiritual uncleanliness. Does Sholem Asch purify the notion of non-normative love by including this scene in the rain? Does Vogel and Taichman purify Asch by including him in the rainstorm? This, too, is unclear.

Another repeated scene is the final moments from the play within the play, when the father desecrates the Torah by throwing it to the floor in anger over his daughter’s actions. It is intriguing that the two scenes repeated most in Indecent are the very scenes which caused God of Vengeance to be labelled indecent in the United States. The repetition of the Torah scene was a device to show the various places where the company performed, in a sort of montage, one right after the other. A shorthand then developed; when the father raised the Torah over his head, the audience read that the show within the show was over, even if they couldn’t understand the dialogue.

Indecent is, at its core, a play about movement, and some of that movement occurs across borders. In a note in the playbill, Paula Vogel says she “didn’t anticipate that Indecent would be as relevant today as it is; we are again witnessing an upheaval of fear, xenophobia, homophobia, and yes, anti-Semitism.” She points out that American borders are being closed in the face of this upheaval, much like they were in the 1920s. “We must remember where the closing of borders in the 20th century led nations around the globe.”

By the conclusion, the piece felt whole but then didn’t all at the same time. If we are to follow the character of Sholem Asch in Indecent, it seems like there is no great realization or “aha” made. Asch, unsure of the potential for his play at the beginning, seems equally unsure at the end. Perhaps this is the point, that we are left feeling like the work Asch set out to do is not finished and needs to continue; that is, the work of writing theatre that tells non-Jews who the Jews are; that is, essentially, cultural education.