|Lorraine LeBlanc and Curtis Billings in “Freedom.”||Photo courtesy National WWII Museum|
“Freedom,” which opens at the National World War II Museum on July 5, has been in development for over two decades. Playwright Joyce Pulitzer said when they started writing the play, the theme about immigrants dealing with their pasts while becoming Americans “wasn’t that poignant, but today the story is really hot.”
“We’re excited” about this month’s run at the New Orleans institution. “It’s been a long journey.”
Set in 1998, “Freedom” is the story of a Holocaust survivor and an Irish immigrant who meet just hours before their U.S. naturalization ceremony. Both have deep wounds from their pasts, and through that forge a connection through learning about their commonalities.
The story isn’t just about finding the freedom that comes with being an American, but also the freedom to face the truth about one’s self.
In America, she said, there are so many opportunities to be free. “Here you can be who you are.”
Over the years, Pulitzer said, four writers collaborated on the project. She recalled being at Disney World with her grandchildren, when a sea of humanity sprang up and she lost track of her family momentarily. She said that moment of fright gave her a taste of the emotions when families were suddenly separated in the 1940s in Europe.
The experience stayed with her, and she started contemplating what she would have done if she had been in a concentration camp. “I would have done pretty much anything,” she said.
Pulitzer has also written “Cherries Jubilee,” which won the Big Easy Best New Play award in 1999, and “Life, Liberty, and Social Security.”
In 1998, she started working on “Freedom” with “history buff” David Seelig, contrasting the experience of a Holocaust survivor with that of a former member of the Irish Republican Army, who had lived in a ghetto because he was Catholic. Seelig was not well for much of the time that they collaborated, and he died before it the play was completed.
Pulitzer also approached Kitty Greenberg, who headed the drama department at Isidore Newman School. Greenberg was skeptical, but Pulitzer said she had a “degree in chutzpah,” and convinced Greenberg to read the draft. She was also skeptical on how three people could write a play, but joined the effort.
Pulitzer said their philosophy during the writing was “it doesn’t matter whose line it is as long as it makes the play better.”
During the writing, Pulitzer and Greenberg met with local Holocaust survivor Anne Levy, and they spent time at the home of Felicia Fuksman, who had spent four years in the Lodz Ghetto, then was sent to Ravensbruck. She immigrated to New Orleans in 1950.
Pulitzer said the Holocaust survivors in New Orleans were called the New Americans, because they wanted to be assimilated. “They weren’t the Polish-Americans or the Russian-Americans.”
Pulitzer invited Sean Patterson, who teaches drama at Metairie Park Country Day School, to read the script. He then signed on as the fourth writer. Greenberg also died before the show made its debut.
In July 2013, the play’s first run was at the Contemporary Arts Center, where she said “it did very well” despite not being part of a season ticket package — so every ticket sold had to be someone specifically wanting to see that show.
Through some connections, she was able to approach the National World War II Museum, a venue she really wanted to host the show, because the museum “has been so significant to our city.” And, she added, they have a Freedom pavilion.
The play will be directed by Maxwell Williams of Le Petit Theatre. Curtis Billings will play the role of Danny, the Irish immigrant, while Lorraine LeBlanc, who played Holocaust survivor Yetta in the 2013 production, returns in the role.
The show will be at BB’s Stage Door Canteen, July 5, 6, 12, 13, 19 and 27. Tickets are available here.