Michel Hausman is remaking Miami theatre, one controversy at a time
Miami’s Venezuelan Jews love Michel Hausmann, even if he sometimes infuriates them.
“I’m now a pariah in my community,” said Hausmann, who has produced and directed acclaimed theatre in his native Venezuela, New York and, now, Miami. “I am in a way an enfant terrible. They support me but they don’t agree with my politics.”
Hausman co-founded Miami New Drama in 2016 with fellow Venezuelan Jew Moises Kaufman, the famous playwright and director. Miami New Drama’s success has been a source of pride to Venezuelan exiles, approximately 109,000 of whom, including most of the country’s Jews, have settled in South Florida, where they’ve become a vocal part of this heavily immigrant area.
But his overt progressive politics have also put him at odds with a community that stood with former President Donald Trump in the 2020 election, even as the majority of American Jews opposed him.
Being unpopular among his own people is not something Hausmann is used to. Now 39, he grew up in a warm, prosperous, close-knit Jewish community in Caracas. Many of the country’s approximately 22,000 Jews were children or grandchildren of European refugees from the Holocaust. In Venezuela, they found success and acceptance.
Hausmann’s father Ricardo Hausmann, a renowned economist now at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, served as Venezuela’s Minister of Planning. When Hausmann’s childhood synagogue celebrated Yom Kippur, a distinguished government representative would speak.
“I have only very fond memories,” said Hausmann. “There might have been ignorance about what it meant to be Jewish, but no hostility. Jews served the highest functions in society, they were integrated, respected.”
That began to change in the 2000’s, as Hugo Chavez, a socialist elected in 1998, and his supporters became increasingly hostile to Israel and Jews in Venezuela.
Hausmann, who attended Boston’s Emerson College, returned in 2003, in the midst of this upheaval, founding the theater troupe Palo de Agua in 2004, which often did popular stagings of Broadway musicals.
Two of the country’s leading theatrical figures, both of them Jewish and gay, were instrumental to Hausmann’s success. He directed the final play by Issac Chocron, a major Venezuelan writer. And he invited Moises Kaufman, who despite his U.S. stardom had never done a show in Venezuela, to direct his play “Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde.” Kaufman insisted they direct it together, starting a close relationship that continues to this day.
“It was beautiful and generous of him,” Hausmann said. “He’s still this incredible mentor and champion.”
Meanwhile, antisemitism was growing amidst increasing social and political strife. Police raided both the elementary school and Hausmann’s high school at Hebraica, the central Jewish community center. In 2009 an armed gang attacked the Tiferet Israel synagogue, breaking windows and desecrating Torah scrolls.
Hausmann was among thousands who gathered, stunned, outside. His maternal grandmother had survived Auschwitz; his other grandmother lived through the war because a Gentile family took her in. Now the horrors of history and family stories had come shockingly to life.
“It was terrifying,” Hausmann says. “It was the images I had studied in black and white, in color in front of my eyes. You had imagined you had put all that behind you. Suddenly you felt the lessons from the past were guiding our future.”
Hausmann and Palo de Agua were drawn into the upheaval. In 2009, as they were preparing to stage Fiddler on the Roof, their government-funded orchestra said they couldn’t perform in a Jewish show. Their refusal made news, Hausmann hired independent musicians, and thousands flocked to performances.
“Supporting Palo de Agua and Fiddler on the Roof became an anti-Chavista statement,” Hausmann said.
Each time the orchestra entered, Hausmann recalled, the 3,000-seat theatre would erupt with shouts, “Valientes! Valientes!” — brave ones.
The show’s final image of beleaguered Jews preparing to flee to a strange country hit home with Venezuelans starting what would become an exodus of millions.
“It resonated at that moment like nowhere else,” Hausmann said.
After the theater was tear gassed during their next show, a newly married Hausmann joined the exodus. He earned an MFA in directing at New York’s Columbia University, a fellowship at the famed New York Theatre Workshop, and created the chamber musical “Golem of Havana,” about a Jewish family struggling with the Cuban Revolution.
But instead of staying in New York, he chose Miami.
His motivations were partly practical. He and his wife, Meyrav Barak, a psychoanalyst, had just had twins, and Hausmann worried about freelancing in the ultra-competitive cultural capital. But mostly he was drawn by the prospect of making theater someplace where he felt like he belonged and could make an impact.
“From Venezuela I knew I loved having a relationship with a community,” he said. “Miami was the center of gravity – there were a lot of exiles here, a lot of Jewish exiles..This is home – this is where I wanted home to be.”
Miami New Drama opened with “Golem of Havana,” whose theme made it a hit with Venezuelan and Cuban exiles. Hausmann proceeded to put immigrants, Blacks, and Miami’s unique stories onstage. MiND’s production of “Our Town” re-imagined Thornton Wilder’s American classic with Haitian and Latino families. He commissioned original plays like “Confessions of a Cocaine Cowboy,” based on the cult documentaries about Miami’s wild drug days; and two plays about the Cuban experience by local Cuban-American writers.
He staged the local premiere of “One Night in Miami,” the play about four Black icons that’s now an acclaimed film, and used it as a platform to talk about race in Miami. This winter MiND’s pandemic production “Seven Deadly Sins,” with original short plays riffing on contemporary evils performed in vacant storefronts, sold out for two months, earning attention in American Theatre Magazine and the New York Times.
Gregarious and socially adroit, Hausmann earned the support of local politicians and business leaders. The City of Miami Beach made MiND the Colony’s resident theater troupe, and they received major grants from Miami’s agenda-setting arts funder, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. He used their status to call out the local theater scene for catering to white, English-only audiences in a city that’s 70% Latino, and for the lack of Black talent and stories. He used the theater marquee to respond to Trumpian outrages.
“Colony Theatre Proudly Represents Artists from Sh!thole Countries,” was one provocative posting.
He even became a surrogate for Biden in the presidential election. But as Venezuelan exiles allied with conservative Cuban-Americans, both groups seduced by a Republican disinformation campaign branding Democrats as hardcore socialists who would replicate the repression in Venezuela and Cuba, Hausmann’s ideas have made him increasingly controversial.
He’s deeply sympathetic to their loss, and noted that Democrats’ expanded use of the word socialism was a trigger.
“I understand their trauma,” he said. “More than status, they lost a sense of identity. Their factories, jobs, seeing their family every Shabbat – they lost all that. That’s real trauma. They hate Chavez so much that they think whoever is against him is their ally.”
But he’s still confounded that Venezuelans, and Venezuelan Jews in particular, could embrace a corrupt, authoritarian demagogue with anti-immigrant and neo-Nazi supporters.
“It baffles me,” he said. “These ideas of left and right are dated. Now it’s about illiberal and authoritarian leaders versus democracies.”
Hausmann remains committed to championing progressive ideas he said are integral to his old country, and his new one. Next summer he and Kaufman plan to premiere a theatrical version of “Las Aventuras de Juan Planchard,” a best-selling novel about corruption in Venezuela by filmmaker Jonathan Jakubowicz, another exiled Venezuelan Jew who’s found success in Hollywood. In March MiND launches a free theater program for teenagers.
“We are a faithful representation of our community,” Hausmann said. “If I’m going to talk to a community, there’s no community like Miami.”
Jordan Levin is a freelance writer in Miami.