A Jewish Boy With a Memphis Tale Visits a New York Stage


By Shelly R. Fredman

Published December 16, 2005, issue of December 16, 2005.
  • Print
  • Share Share

If you believe that stories are the sinews binding us to one another, creating whatever remnants of communion we have, then you might want to walk the well-worn path to 42nd Street and take in Jonathan Adam Ross’s one-man show, “Walking in Memphis: The Life of a Southern Jew.”

It’s a celebration of storytelling, as Ross, who wrote the show, narrates his journey from Memphis, Tenn., to New York City — from the Waffle House, where his father laid out plates of sausage, bacon and ham and instructed his son to enjoy them, because he’d never see them again, to an older but no less naive Jonathan who holds open doors for Puerto Rican girls who tell him where to take his Southern manners.

In the small theater at the Abingdon Theatre Arts Complex, utilizing nothing more than a piano, a chair and a stool, Ross, in T-shirt and jeans, evokes a cast of characters from his life: Sharell Evett Jefferson and her chitlins; Sara Glick, a Ramah camper dying to play the penguin in “Mary Poppins,” though the current production is “Fiddler on the Roof”; Jim Grigg, a hardcore Southern Baptist who sits in the front row at Jonathan’s bar mitzvah, and Clarence Sanders, the Memphis barber who dreams of being the mayor. We meet Jonathan as a young boy asking what Christians do, and being told by his black nanny, Elizabeth, “We get born again.” “Give me the Holy Ghost,” the boy cries. We are introduced to his mother, who won’t turn left while driving and won’t merge, and we witness her delight when 200 samples of her favorite discontinued bra arrive at the family’s house. The barber’s scissors, Grandma Selma’s fruitcake, the “fierce spiritual fervor” of a one-room Southern church — Ross conjures them all, without the pyrotechnics and extravagance that has Broadway looking more and more like Disneyland these days.

Ross knits the vignettes together with Marc Cohn’s ballad, “Walking in Memphis.” Though he relies on it a bit too much to hold the dramatic center of things, it captures a boy’s longing for a sense of home, Southern-style, complete with gospel and grits. And though Ross’s voice won’t win any Grammys, he tells the tales with warmth and humor, and the play is directed seamlessly enough by Chantal Parageaux. It often feels like one is not in a theater at all, but in some plush Southern living room, amid the smells of cornbread and sweet potato pie, listening to a raconteur in the tradition of Mark Twain, fireside.

Ross conceived the play when he was a student at Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, and some might say there’s hubris in offering your life story at 25. It’s true, but there’s also an innocence and exuberance in the telling, a familiarity missing in our hyper-publicized, hyper-ironic theatrical experiences. When’s the last time you heard “Adon Olam” — what Ross calls our “Let’s go out and face the day” prayer — rendered first as an anguished cry, then as a 45 rpm children’s classic and finally, to the tune of “Dixie”? Or “Aquarius” sung in Hebrew?

When Ross described hearing stories of his mother after her funeral — the joy of them, the way they make his mother come alive amid the inevitable fading of the typography of her face — it was easy to see the sacred spark of the tales we tell.

“Stories don’t fade; they get better with age,” Ross said. Like a modern day Hasidic master, he seems to know it’s about refracting meaning, a different meaning each time. In a small theater three rows deep, just down the street from where Harvey Fierstein’s doing “Fiddler,” there’s another storyteller at work. Like Sholom Aleichem, Ross teaches us: “What’s truer than the truth? The story.”

Shelly R. Fredman is a freelance writer in New York. Her writing has appeared in “Best Jewish Writing” and in other national publications.

Find us on Facebook!
  • “You can plagiarize the Bible, can’t you?” Jill Sobule says when asked how she went about writing the lyrics for a new 'Yentl' adaptation. “A couple of the songs I completely stole." Share this with the theater-lovers in your life!
  • Will Americans who served in the Israeli army during the Gaza operation face war crimes charges when they get back home?
  • Talk about a fashion faux pas. What was Zara thinking with the concentration camp look?
  • “The Black community was resistant to the Jewish community coming into the neighborhood — at first.” Watch this video about how a group of gardeners is rebuilding trust between African-Americans and Jews in Detroit.
  • "I am a Jewish woman married to a non-Jewish man who was raised Catholic, but now considers himself a “common-law Jew.” We are raising our two young children as Jews. My husband's parents are still semi-practicing Catholics. When we go over to either of their homes, they bow their heads, often hold hands, and say grace before meals. This is an especially awkward time for me, as I'm uncomfortable participating in a non-Jewish religious ritual, but don't want his family to think I'm ungrateful. It's becoming especially vexing to me now that my oldest son is 7. What's the best way to handle this situation?" http://jd.fo/b4ucX What would you do?
  • Maybe he was trying to give her a "schtickle of fluoride"...
  • It's all fun, fun, fun, until her dad takes the T-Bird away for Shabbos.
  • "Like many Jewish people around the world, I observed Shabbat this weekend. I didn’t light candles or recite Hebrew prayers; I didn’t eat challah or matzoh ball soup or brisket. I spent my Shabbat marching for justice for Eric Garner of Staten Island, Michael Brown of Ferguson, and all victims of police brutality."
  • Happy #NationalDogDay! To celebrate, here's a little something from our archives:
  • A Jewish couple was attacked on Monday night in New York City's Upper East Side. According to police, the attackers flew Palestinian flags.
  • "If the only thing viewers knew about the Jews was what they saw on The Simpsons they — and we — would be well served." What's your favorite Simpsons' moment?
  • "One uncle of mine said, 'I came to America after World War II and I hitchhiked.' And Robin said, 'I waited until there was a 747 and a kosher meal.'" Watch Billy Crystal's moving tribute to Robin Williams at last night's #Emmys:
  • "Americans are much more focused on the long term and on the end goal which is ending the violence, and peace. It’s a matter of zooming out rather than debating the day to day.”
  • "I feel great sorrow about the fact that you decided to return the honor and recognition that you so greatly deserve." Rivka Ben-Pazi, who got Dutchman Henk Zanoli recognized as a "Righteous Gentile," has written him an open letter.
  • Is there a right way to criticize Israel?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.