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.
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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.

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