A Coupla Jewish Writers Talk Theater, Drinking and Escaping the Midwest
Over the past 15 years or so, Brooke Berman has built a reputation as one of the funniest and most emotionally honest playwrights of her generation. Her often autobiographical work includes “Hunting and Gathering,” which received a celebrated production at Primary Stages in 2008, as well as “Smashing,” “Until We Find Each Other,” and “The Triple Happiness.” It examines the struggles and compromises of women grappling with uncertainty, instability and the weight of their expectations for themselves and their world.
Berman is the wife of my friend and Forward contributor Gordon Haber, and when I first met her, she struck me at the time as a successful version of the spiritually-minded, artistic type of person — airy and abstract and very into yoga — that I’d become familiar with in the New York theater scene over the years. Since then I’ve realized that she’s much tougher. Her faith is grounded in hard experience (chronicled in her memoir, “No Place Like Home”) and it’s allowed her to handle things that would crush a lesser person with compassion, wisdom and enduring hope. I asked her to join me for a drink to discuss “1300 Lafayette East,” the new play she opened in Detroit, among other topics.
Joshua Furst: What are you drinking?
Brooke Berman: I’m drinking a Nero D’Avola. I like a big red. And the place is called Caffé é Vino, so you have to order vino.
You just got back from Detroit.
I did. I opened a play in Detroit and it’s a crazy, crazy thing. It’s a collaboration between the local Jewish theater, JET, and the local African-American theater, Plowshares. And much to my dismay, they have two different audiences so the play is actually going to run for a month at the JCC in the suburbs where JET’s theater is and all the suburban Jews go — I don’t say that in a pejorative way, I’m from there so they’re actually my people — and then it’s going to run for a month downtown. What I said to the director is I wish I could sit and have the experiences of both of those audiences together experiencing the play. That’s what the play’s meant to be. It’s an amazing thing to me that a play about a black woman and a Jewish woman in Detroit in the 1960s is being done by a black company and a Jewish company in Detroit. And theatergoers are by and large as you know over the age of 50, so all the members of the audience remember the summer of 1967, which is when the play takes place.
During the riots?
That’s right. The play is set just before and after the riots. My mother and father lived in this apartment building downtown, 1300 Lafayette East, and the way my mother told the story, her neighbors were the Supremes and the Temptations. So there was a Motown presence in that building and one of the interesting things about Detroit was they had a viable black middle class for a really long time. It’s an amazing melting pot of a city —
Was… was an amazing melting pot.
Was. Maybe it will be again.
Once all the writers move there for the free housing.
Sure. If they really do that. Do you think they’re really going to do that?
I’ve heard there are only three houses.
Right. I’m cynical and I feel like there’s something a little disingenuous about when people like David Byrne tell the young generation to move to Detroit.
It’s more than disingenuous. There’s something hypocritical and self-serving.
Thank you. You said it, I didn’t. It’s not like David Byrne is moving to Detroit. Actually, it’s not a very easy place to live.
This is what’s interesting to me: You grew up in the Midwest, and I grew up in the Midwest, and —
Where’d you grow up?
Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. I actually grew up in a town called Rosendale. It’s like an hour and a half drive north of Milwaukee.
I lived in Detroit until I was 10, and then right when I turned 11, we moved to Libertyville, Ill. And then we moved into the North Shore suburbs where John Hughes is from. And then I moved to New York when I was 18.
I moved to New York when I was 16. But when I think of you and your sensibility, I think there’s something indelibly Midwestern about you and also something indelibly Jewish.
Can you talk more about that?
Your relationship to the idea of success is not really New Yorky. The New York sensibility to me is very tribal. Everybody has their own tribe and they know the social codes and the rules of that tribe and they’re always conscious of when they’re talking to their tribe and when they’re talking to another tribe.
Give me an example.
The hasidic Jews and West Indians in Crown Heights where I live.
I would argue that, for people like us, the notion of tribes has to do with artists. My life changed the summer I was 16. My mom sent me away to the Bennington College summer arts program. And it was the first time I was in the presence of people who were of my tribe. Sure, they were probably affluent, privileged, but they were asking questions and writing and painting and dancing and seeking the kinds of things I was seeking. Prior to that summer I felt like the crazy misfit trying to fit in.
That to me is a very Midwestern thing. New Yorkers I know who have become artists, they still see their tribe as being the neighborhood.
Sure. For white middle class people in New York, there’s an idea that you can be an artist and be successful. For Midwesterners, often, that idea is inaccessible.
It’s beyond inaccessible. It’s a mark of Cain.
I came from an artist family, sort of. My mom was a classical pianist who’d played with the symphony as a child and then she didn’t pursue it. I think she was really bitten in the ass by the feminine mystique. She felt she could either be a pianist or she could be Doris Day in “Please Don’t Eat the Daisies.” And then she found herself as a divorcée in the ’70s having to support herself. And later, before she died, she spoke quite eloquently about the loss of her music, that music was the most important thing to her, and she’d lost that. The point I’m trying to make is that there was a precedent of sorts for me to become an artist. And coming to New York to me felt like coming home. I always felt like an outsider in the Midwest.
That’s what makes you such a Midwesterner!
One of my first friends here was from Minneapolis and he would often talk about us as Midwestern-New Yorkers. There was this kind of person who comes to New York but is from the Midwest and who still looks you in the eye and says hi and is super genuine and a little innocent. I was naïve to a great many things that my friends in New York weren’t naïve to.
Did you feel like your Jewishness marked you as an outsider?
No, that’s not true. When we lived in Libertyville, I was one of two Jews in the public school and my mother’s second husband was not Jewish. So my Jewishness marked me as an outsider in my home. And then it was never really an issue.
To me it was a huge issue. There were five Jews in the town. Everybody knew who they were. They would say to your face that they didn’t trust you because you might “Jew them.”
Yeah, I’ve heard stuff like that. The other thing is that I got to my fancy private college that I was really excited to go to and had fought really hard to go to and I kept looking for the psychedelic, like, let’s-go-inspire-each-other-and-make-the-revolution, and those people weren’t there. I was aware of my otherness as a Midwesterner by not being part of the Northeastern educated class.
You were shut out.
I was a freak.
So you’d been shut out, by virtue of being an artist, from your Midwestern society, and then you were shut out of the society that you were trying to join by virtue of being —
You know, I wouldn’t say shut out —
Yeah, I’m totally projecting myself onto your experience here.
I felt like a foreigner. Nobody was shutting me out.
I myself was shutting me out. I was a Midwesterner with zero confidence.
Yeah, me too. I had bravado, I didn’t have confidence.
There’s a big difference between the two. Bravado is what gets you killed.
I got to college and I had never heard of or conceived of white liberal guilt. Jews have such a crazy persecution complex we don’t think of ourselves as the oppressor. We think of ourselves as part of the struggle.
You and I both started out in downtown experimental theater. It was a vibrant, very alive scene back in the late ’80s early ’90s. And we both moved away from that world. And I know why I moved away. I had been writing fiction as well and I was fighting with everybody I knew in theater and I thought, well, why don’t I just keep doing this other thing. When you moved away, you entered, I want to call it legit theater.
None of it was intentional. I loved downtown theater. I was chronicling the lives of my friends and I was interested in really small things, but always with a downtown sensibility. Then I wrote a 10-minute play that got produced by Naked Angels. They grounded the whole thing in a naturalistic construct. I didn’t know enough about playwriting to understand why that was unsatisfying to me. After that, I decided that I needed to go back to school.
So you went to Julliard.
Right. But it wasn’t strategic. I applied to a lot of programs and then Christopher Durang called and said come to Julliard and it’s free. I felt like the infinite universe sort of picked me up and said ‘I’ve got a plan for you baby.’
This is what’s so interesting to me. This is specific to us, to the people who were born within four of five years of us. The people in the exact same position that you and I were in, but were five years older, they —
They got funding, yo.
— they had been able to build their careers downtown without it being pulled out from under them. And people five years after us, it would never have occurred to them to throw their lives away on this dream about the purity of art. This idea of collaboration that we were exploring in our 20s didn’t have the idea of the noxious relationship between money and art. I feel like you moved to LA and you put yourself into the mouth of the lion. Now you’re doing a different kind of collaboration that harkens back to what was happening in the early ’90s.
Well, the move to LA was about writing for film and television, but while I was in LA I realized that if I wanted to see the kinds of films that I really wanted to make made, I’d have to make them myself.
And you made a movie.
It’s called “Uggs for Gaza,” and it’s based on a story that Gordon wrote. The idea is that a guy moves to LA. He doesn’t know anybody. He goes to a party. He tells people he’s Joe Schmo who works in marketing and they’re not interested. So he drinks a little bit and meets a hot girl and in order to impress her he pretends that he runs a nonprofit. And she asks him which one and he says, off the top of his head, Uggs for Gaza, we send Ugg boots to the Gaza Strip and she says, “Oh my god, I think I’ve heard of that.” And she tells all her friends and he’s besieged by Ugg boots.
Is the movie out yet?
It’s on the festival circuit. We’re waiting to hear.
Oh, my god, Gordon, speak of the devil. It’s good to see you!