Locked in the Adjective Box


I've been asked to write about the issues I face as a Jewish woman playwright. And my first question is, "What's with the adjectives?" I mean they're perfectly reasonable, accurate. But I am also

1. a five-foot-almost-one-inch playwright
2. a left-handed playwright
3. a New-York-playwright-living-in-Los-Angeles- longing-for-New-York playwright
4. a mom-of-a-three-and-a-half-year-old playwright

I guess the issues I face are those of a playwright, and they include everything that I bring to the table, or the laptop, when I write.
And this makes me ask: Why is a play a Jewish play (or a gay play, or a woman's play, or a black play)? What's with the adjectives?

I’m curious about our need to qualify plays and playwrights with identifying labels, as though adorning them with a little tag immediately indicates whether or not a theater should produce said “adjectived” play, or a potential audience member should want to see it. Okay, so perhaps calling a certain drama a “gay play” will impel the gay community to rush out and buy tickets, but does it also make straight theater-goers wonder, “Is this play for me? Will there be anyone I relate to on this stage? Would I just rather go to the multiplex and watch some car-chase flick?” And my personal fear: that slapping an adjective on a playwright will limit what people expect from that writer.

I had a reading last year of a play of mine called Mallbaby, about a baby left in the movie theater of an enormous mall, and the longing he sparks in all those who come in contact with him. After the reading the literary manager called the play a “maternity” play; now that was one I'd never heard before. "What does that mean?" I asked. He had no answer except that the play had a pregnant woman and a baby in it, and was written by me, a mom. Did it matter that I wrote the first draft of that play before a thought of having a kid had entered my head? No, he had me figured out from the day he heard my baby crying in the background on the phone. Mom playwright… maternity play. I could have no relationship to him without partner or child.

That’s the danger of the adjectives. They box us in. They become pejorative rather than enlightening. Another big fear (maybe I'm The Fearful Playwright): Will knowing how I'm described as a writer limit me the next time I sit down at the blank page? Will I be caged in the adjective box? Or, conversely, if I begin writing a play that has a Jewish character or issues mentioned—or a child or a baby or a pregnancy or a woman in it—should I stop because that's what is expected of me?

I wrote a play called The Last Seder (one point in the I-can-understand-why-you'd-think-this-is-a-Jewish-play category just for the title, I get that). But in my mind the root of the seder and the ritual of it is a mirror for family holiday ritual, no matter what the religion or ethnicity of those celebrating. A producer, a Conservative Jew I know, lobbied me early on to change the title. “It limits your audience,” he said. But to me the title reflects perfectly what is happening in this piece about four daughters who go home with their respective partners for the last seder in their family’s home, as their father declines with Alzheimer's. It is their last seder as it has always been, it is a riff on the last supper, the play has its own mini-resurrection in it. The play almost sprung forth from the title—organically—and I wasn’t going to change it.

The producer had a point, though. The Last Seder gets labeled a Jewish play, and I get labeled a Jewish playwright. But the play also has to do with Alzheimer's, with interfaith relationships, inter-racial relationships, with a lesbian couple having a baby, and magic in our every day world.

Now I’ve wondered, since I started thinking about the issues facing a Jewish female playwright: Am I being one of those self-loathing Jewish writers when I bristle at the adjective of “Jewish” play, “Jewish” playwright? I don’t think so. I am Jewish, and this play, and others of mine that may have some Jewish characters themes, are reflections of my world. It’s not wrong to call The Last Seder a Jewish play and me a Jewish playwright. It’s not incorrect. But all this leaves me wondering, "Is that all I am? Is that all I'm seen as?" Does the appeal of my work not spread past those out there who also possess a female genitalia and went to a Temple Emanuel in their youth? Because my goal in writing is to be more than that.

Most writers I know strive to write something that reflects the human condition, that strikes a chord in the soul of the world. Their greatest hope is to touch your heart. The thing about The Last Seder that makes me most proud is when an audience member (Jewish or not) comes to me and says, “This is a family play. This is just like my family at a birthday dinner, Easter, Thanksgiving, [fill-in-the-holiday]. I saw myself in this play. I was caught up in the magic of the play. ”

That's what makes me know that I’ve done what I set out to do: to write a play that will spark some recognition in the people who come to see it. That wakes them up to something in their own life or makes them laugh or think or escape for a brief moment. That's when I know I’ve succeeded—as a playwright who happens to be Jewish, female, left-handed, and dark-haired, or whatever other adjective applies.

Discussion Question
What do you make of the term "Jewish Theater?" Jennifer Maisel says it’s just one adjective of many. When you think of Jewish theater, what do you think about? Join our discussion and voice your thoughts.