By Hugh Iglarsh
The history of the Jews in America and American popular culture are permanently entwined, from Tin Pan Alley tunesmiths to Borscht Belt comics to Hollywood moguls to Al Jolson launching the talkies with a tale about a quavery-voiced cantor’s son who dreams of breaking away and achieving stardom as a jazz singer.
David Chack, who founded Chicago’s ShPIeL-Performing Identity theater company in 2012, is perennially drawn to this theme of contact, conflict and connection between cultures and the interplay of history and tradition with modernity.
“It was cantors—Avram Goldfaden, Boris Thomashefsky, Moishe Oysher—who really started Yiddish theater in America,” says Chack. “And the impact of Yiddish theater was immense”—not just on the immigrant Jewish community but on the larger society. “That’s what I want to do with ShPIeL, create something that’s Jewish and intercultural, that connects with other identities from a Jewish place.”
Chack’s own childhood was an interesting mix of showbiz and synagogue. Raised outside of Washington, D.C., Chack—like a suburban Al Jolson—loved the theater while learning the cantorial art.
“I’ve been leading services since I was eight years old and I also sang professionally as a kid—I was a child soprano, singing at events and celebrations,” says Chack. “My first hero was Mario Lanza.”
From apprentice cantor and boy soprano to young actor in Greenwich Village attempting to stage an obscure Martin Buber play to today’s director-impresario-dramaturg-educator-organizer, Chack remains at the junction of Jewish and performing worlds, doing whatever needs be done to keep the cultural dialogue going.
I caught up with him in Skokie, where he teaches Jewish culture studies at Oakton Community College. That’s just one of his many hats. Chack also teaches theater at DePaul University; serves as a consultant for various local troupes, including Lookingglass, Silk Road Rising and Northlight; trains teachers for the Chicago Board of Jewish Education; and runs the Alliance for Jewish Theatre, a national association of artists and organizations. A busy man, he divides his time between Chicago and Louisville, where his wife works as a museum director and he once served as program officer of the local Jewish Community Center and director of the Kentucky Shakespeare Festival.
But other than his family, it’s ShPIeL that’s closest to his heart. In the four-and-a-half years since the curtain rose on ShPIeL’s first show, a one-man play about the hidden Jews of Spain called “Conviction,” the theater has produced a wide range of work on everything from the life of Emma Goldman to Israel-Palestine (the satirical farce “Angina Pectoris”) to the neo-Nazi “invasion” of Skokie in 1977. What unites these plays is a querying of what it means to be a Jew at this moment in history and how the community intersects with others.
“We don’t have a regular season—we do things when they’re ready to pop,” says Chack, who’s now developing a play about the great scholar Abraham Joshua Heschel, who left the house of study to march with Martin Luther King in Selma. “The question I’m always asking is, how do you develop work from your own identity? How does a performance emerge from who you are historically, from your deepest self? I’ve found that these questions of identity tend to lead to other questions of social justice.”
Chack says he’d be surprised if ShPIeL ever did a “Fiddler on the Roof” or “Fools of Chelm.”
“The sixties and seventies were the age of more nostalgic Jewish theater, reflecting ghetto life,” he says. “Now it’s more about connecting with others and working side by side. ‘The Invasion of Skokie’—not just a history piece but a ‘goy meets girl’ story—was written by a non-Jew.”
As is (in part) “A Jewish Joke,” which will be remounted March 18-19 at the Skokie Theatre. Together with Marni Freeman, Phil Johnson authored the one-man show and, under Chack’s direction, performed it to neurotic, hilarious and scary perfection last year at Victory Gardens.
“Jewish Joke,” which was also staged in New York in 2016, epitomizes ShPIeL’s aims and approach. Set in the McCarthyite early fifties, the play depicts a couple of very bad hours in the life of Bernie Lutz, a Hollywood comedy writer who discovers that, despite his best efforts at cultural camouflage and political avoidance, the Red-baiters are on his trail. Neither schmuck nor mensch, Lutz is a showbiz everyman who treats his career as a religion and his religion as a source of jokes for his career. When the blacklist, with its underlying anti-Semitism, threatens to overwhelm this seemingly assimilated Jew, Lutz finds that he must reclaim serious, long-dormant aspects of his identity and make a difficult moral choice in order to survive as a person.
The Skokie Theatre production includes a post-show panel discussion about the Red Scare trauma of two generations ago and how it relates to the even more naked fear-mongering and xenophobia on display today.
“As Jews, we know a lot about being outsiders, about being in exile,” says Chack. “That’s where the ethical responsibility comes in.”
At this moment of ascendant cruelty and ignorance, when it’s open season on society’s most vulnerable members, the unique perspective of Jewish theater has more resonance than ever.
“Storytelling is a big part of what it means to be a Jew,” notes Chack. “Look at Passover and Purim, two holidays based on reenacting ancient tales about the community and the wider world. The root of Jewish culture has always been intersection and dialogue. It’s by encountering each other that we learn who we are.”