“Bar Mitzvah in Birmingham” among RMT’s Human Rights New Works

By Lee J. Green

Red Mountain Theatre’s fourth-annual Human Rights New Works Festival, to be held Sept. 24 to 26, features a couple of new plays about Holocaust survivors, as well as one focusing on New York Jews moving to a small town outside of Birmingham and being confronted with antisemitism.

Executive Director Keith Cromwell said the festival’s goal is to present theatre that opens up a dialogue and can push for change.

“We want to entertain and engage the audience in thought,” said Cromwell. “Theatre and the arts can be powerful tools toward an understanding. It is our goal to support and cultivate important new works.”

A couple of years ago, Cromwell approached Birmingham Holocaust Education Center board member Deborah Layman about writing a play on Holocaust survivors in Birmingham.

“I became close with our six local Holocaust survivors and knew of their heroic stories, but I had never written a play before,” said Layman, who was assisted by dramaturg Len Berkman in how to develop a script. “The challenge was to take the narratives and evolve this into a play that crosses over into today.”

Thus “Survivors” was born. Layman taught high school for many years, including a Holocaust education curriculum, so she decided to set the play in a high school classroom.

“The survivors share their stories with the kids and (the play) revolves around how those stories can affect and help these kids who are dealing with bullying, victimization and being marginalized,” said Layman. “Everything we do with the (BHEC) is not just to keep these stories alive but to also have an impact on today’s kids.”

Layman said writing the stories in first person and coming up with a narrative “really affected me deeply. That is what theatre and the power of storytelling are all about.”

She said the 8 p.m. performance on Sept. 25 will be a staged reading. “The audience response will help us to develop this into a full production,” she said.

“Bar Mitzvah in Birmingham” will make its stage debut on Sept. 26 at 2 p.m. Los Angeles-based playwright Ben Andron said the play is a comedy and musical, but it tackles serious issues of antisemitism and racism.

The show centers on an Orthodox Jewish family in Brooklyn that is struggling to make ends meet. The father inherits a restaurant — run by an African-American chef and his bookkeeping wife — in a small town outside of Birmingham.

“I love the idea of using comedy to shine a light into the darkness. We wanted to do a fish-out-of-water story that evolved into something that tackles some serious issues,” said Andron, who is an observant Orthodox Jew.

Andron came out to Los Angeles in the early 2000s to pursue a career in screenwriting. But he started branching out in different directions, including writing for graphic novels and ultimately playwriting, including a comedy adaptation of Aldous Huxley’s book “Brave New World.”

He was more recently working with the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery and one of his writing partners, Jason Rose, was friends with Cromwell. Rose had an idea for the play that they hashed out.

Cromwell said, “when Jason and Ben came to me with the idea for ‘Bar Mitzvah in Birmingham’ I knew this would be the perfect place to workshop it. Ben had never been to Birmingham and I told him you have to come here to gain a greater understanding.”

Andron, who lived in Winston-Salem from ages five to 10, visited Birmingham this past May. He met with leaders of the Jewish and African-American communities, civil rights heroes and visited historical sites.

“My visit definitely gave me the foundation I needed to formulate the story,” he said. “The city has grown so much but there was a strong, conscious acknowledgement of its history. My experience in Birmingham was inspiring, informative and entertaining.”

Andron said he is fortunate to have collaborators working on the music for the show who share in the vision. One is African-American composer Thomas Jones, and the other is a well-known African-American rapper/songwriter, Nissim Black, who converted to Judaism and lives in Israel.

“It’s exciting to work together to see this show evolve and change,” he said, adding that they will likely present the first act of the show in Birmingham. “I know the audience reaction will help us shape this and we are so grateful to Red Mountain Theatre Company for this opportunity. The goal would be to have a full-fledged production in the next year or so.”

Rounding out the Human Rights New Works Festival will be “True North,” a show about a family adapting to changes and embracing the magic of the holidays, told through the lens of a child on the spectrum.

A preview of “Memorial” by Birmingham playwright Quinton Cockrell debuted at Reed Mountain Theatre this past May. The play was commissioned by RMT and written using extensive research from the Jefferson County Memorial Project, which received a portion of the proceeds.

“Memorial,” on Sept. 24 at 8 p.m., examines the scourge of lynching in Jefferson County from the 1890s through the 1930s. The show, which has been updated since its staged reading this past spring, incorporates drama and spirit-stirring music to commemorate lives lost to senseless, racially-motivated violence during this dark time in American history.

Cromwell said it is a goal of the Festival to inform, entertain and to make a difference.

“We want to support these works… and to make the audience aware of the local resources, organizations and causes we have here. They are making a difference in people’s lives every day,” he said.