By Lindsay Joelle
Directed by Derek Goldman
May 30-June 24, 2018
Zalmy lives a double life: by day, he’s the rebbe’s loyal foot soldier, driving a tricked-out “Mitzvah Tank” through NYC with his best friend Shmuel. By night, he sneaks away from his Orthodox community to roller-skate, dance in discos, and listen to rock and roll. But when he befriends a zealous young man eager to be his student, the barrier between Zalmy’s two worlds starts to crack—until he must choose once and for all where he belongs. Overflowing with humor and heart, you won’t want to miss this delightful new play.
Winner of 2016 Rita Goldberg Award, and Jewish Plays Project Top 10 finalist
Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission
This project is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.
This production is supported by the Fisher Family Visiting Artist Program.
Director: Derek Goldman
Scenic Designer: Paige Hathaway
Costume Designer: Kelsey Hunt
Lighting Designer: Harold F. Burgess II
Sound Designer: Justin Schmitz
Hair and Beard Designer: Gregory Bazemore
Casting Director: Jenna Duncan
Production Stage Manager: Karen Currie
Assistant Stage Managers: Jessica Soriano, Sydney Ziegler
Sunday, June 10 following the 2:00 PM show
A Work in Progress: The process of new play development
The rehearsal process for a world premiere production like Trayf is often quite different from the rehearsal process for an established play. Join Director Derek Goldman for an in-depth conversation about the development process that brought this exciting new play from page to stage.
Thursday, June 14 following the 7:30 PM show
Sunday, June 17 following the 2:00 PM show
A Jewish Portrait: Finding generalities in the specifics
Trayf tells the story of four very specific characters located in a very specific time and place in history. Join Dr. Jacques Berlinerblau, Director and Professor of Jewish Civilization at Georgetown University and Rabbi Dan Epstein, Senior Jewish Educator at GW Hillel, for a conversation exploring the ways in which the world that Trayf explores is related to the broader Jewish experience.
Arlene and Martin Klepper
Patti and Mitchell Herman
Martha Winter Gross and Robert Tracy
Janet Leno and Peter Harrold
Alan and Irene Wurtzel
Notes from the Playwright: An interview with Lindsay Joelle
Interview conducted by Ellen Morgan Peltz, Literary Director
EP: We’ve been describing Trayf as “an unlikely road-trip buddy play about Chabad-Lubavitchers” which tends to both delight and confuse people. What prompted you to tell this specific story?
LJ: When I moved to New York City 17 years ago, one of the first friends I made was a former Chabad-Lubavitcher from Crown Heights who, in his 20s, left to start a new, secular life. I was always captivated by his stories of dipping his toe into the secular world—a covert trip to Blockbuster to rent The Dead Poets Society, or the thrill of trying on a forbidden pair of blue jeans. It made me see through fresh eyes parts of my world I took for granted. I’m very interested in micro-communities; learning about their rituals and routines and bringing those stories to the stage. But beyond an anthropological interest, Trayf is a tribute to my friend, a testament to his bravery. Zalmy and Shmuel in their Mitzvah Tank club house are fictional characters, but I knew I wanted to tell a story of friendship—of two friends growing up and apart, and the love between them that proves stronger than ideology.
EP: What is your relationship with the Chabad-Lubavitch community?
LJ: I’m the granddaughter of two survivors; my grandfather served in the Polish army and my grandmother was in the Underground Resistance, which is actually a complicated and somewhat traumatic family origin story to grow up with. Shortly after I started studying at Columbia, I remember being stopped on campus by a Chabadnik asking if I was Jewish and wondering which answer would enable a hasty retreat. Due to this ambivalence about my Jewish identity, I told my grad school mentor Sam Hunter (a playwright who often writes about his own conservative Christian upbringing) that the last thing I wanted to write was a play about Judaism. He told me to write a play about Judaism.
EP: What sort of research did you do in order to write this play?
LJ: Most of my early research was through my friend’s anecdotes, which informally add up to seventeen years of Sunday brunches. Over the past five years of writing Trayf, I’ve also questioned rabbis in Crown Heights, listened on speaker phone while a mohel performed a bris, talked fedora fashion with a Chasidic milliner, learned proper wrapping technique in a tefillin shop, wandered around Judaica bookstores looking for Rebbe tapes, sat in the women’s balcony at 770 (the main synagogue), and boarded a Mitzvah Tank. Though I made it clear that my motive was to write a play, not to increase my level of observance, it seemed I always had a standing invitation to shabbos dinner.
EP: All of the characters in Trayf are so wildly specific and endearing. Did anything about them come as a surprise to you during the writing process?
LJ: There’s been a tremendous amount of change to the play from the time I first learned Theater J would produce the world premiere to opening night. When I wrote Trayf for my MFA thesis, the play culminated in the 1991 Crown Heights Race Riots between the Jewish and Afro-Caribbean communities and the destruction of the Mitzvah Tank. An early and important realization in this development process was that the play, which at its core is about a friendship, didn’t need a riot to feel theatrical. As an emerging playwright, there’s a lot of pressure to write something socially or politically “important” or something big enough to be noticed. With the support of Adam and Theater J, I learned to trust that the stakes of losing a childhood best friend and the journey of learning to let him go are vital enough, which gave me the freedom to craft the story with a more delicate hand. It also allowed space for the play to live more fully in the moments when Shmuel and Zalmy are goofing off and having fun with each other—which is the delicious part—seeing what these guys talk about in the Mitzvah Tank when no one’s watching.
EP: How has the experience of telling this story impacted the way you feel about faith in general and the Chabad-Lubavitch movement in particular?
LJ: In my research, I was particularly moved by the Chabad belief that love is an action. That the world is in disrepair, and not by divine intervention, but through dedicated, systematic, and determined acts of love toward ourselves and each other can we hope to elevate it. I’m also rather charmed by the Alter Rebbe’s pronouncement that “a song is a pen of the soul” and the emphasis that Chabad places on music as the conduit to connect to something larger than ourselves.
EP: Why does this play need to be seen now?
LJ: Reading the news has become almost unbearable. We’re as divided as ever by politics, religion, race, education, opportunity, and a hundred other differences, real or imagined. And while staying home and streaming Netflix is swell, I think the most important thing I can do as a writer is put work into the world that exercises our collective empathy muscles. I hope the audience’s experience will ultimately mirror my own: an expectation of difference evolving into the undeniable recognition of similarity. The whole trick of this play—the truth of this play—is that Zalmy and Shmuel are just like any 19-year old best friends: they drive a cool truck, talk about girls, obsess over music—even though their truck is a Mitzvah Tank, their dates are arranged by a matchmaker, and their music is chanted in Yiddish by a 90-year-old Rebbe. If at first their suits and beards make them appear different and strange, and then in the next 90 minutes in the dark we travel with them, experience the world as they do, when we leave the theater, maybe we’re a little changed. Maybe we’re all a little more primed to focus on where we overlap instead of what divides us. And wouldn’t that be a mitzvah?