By Lee J. Green
Red Mountain Theatre is raising the bar on “Bar Mitzvah in Birmingham.” The creative work returns to Birmingham with a retooled script, additional songs and fresh insight as part of the 5th Annual Human Rights New Works Festival, Sept. 22 to 25.
“Bar Mitzvah in Birmingham” premiered in last year’s Human Rights New Works Festival. The staged reading centers on an Orthodox Jewish family that moves from Brooklyn to a small town outside of Birmingham. The father inherits a restaurant run by an African-American chef and his bookkeeping wife. The comedy musical does tackle some serious issues of antisemitism and racism.
“The experience of being in Birmingham and sharing this with an audience 100 percent is how we approached the development of ‘Bar Mitzvah in Birmingham’,” said Los Angeles-based playwright Ben Andron, who is Orthodox. “We looked at balance and tone — that’s very critical when you are developing a comedy musical that is also getting some important messages across.”
Andron said the musical now includes a dozen songs and they hope to have as many as 20 songs in the fully-developed play. He said he is “very fortunate to be able to collaborate with such a talented musical team,” including African-American Composer Thomas Jones and well-known African-American rapper/songwriter Nissim Black, who converted to Judaism and lives in Israel.
“I love the idea of using comedy to shine light into the darkness. We wanted to do a fish-out-of-water story that brings out some serious issues,” he said. “I want everyone to fall in love with the protagonists and to be with them as they deal with being Jewish and black in a small Alabama town.” The show will be on Sept. 22 at 7:30 p.m.
Red Mountain Theatre Artistic Director Keith Cromwell said the goal of the Human Rights New Works Festival is to not only to cultivate new works but to put a spotlight on topics that can open dialogue and push for positive change as well as support.
“We want to entertain and engage the audience in thought,” said Cromwell. “There have been some serendipitous things that have come to the forefront and we’re so excited to present some powerful theatre exploring facets of our complex modern world.”
This year’s festival also brings back Troy University Associate Professor Quinton Cockrell, who has written “The Calling: The Story of Judge U.W. Clemon,” The play examines the life of battles of the civil rights icon.
The Fairfield native was among the first 10 African-Americans admitted to the Alabama Bar. The former U.S. District Court of North Alabama judge is now in private practice, and there is a school in Jefferson County named in his honor. “The Calling” is only open to school groups.
Another show with strong Alabama ties is “Touch,” a piece about Helen Keller that was commissioned by Opera Birmingham. The work picks up where “The Miracle Worker” leaves off. It’s an exploration of Keller’s work, relationships and advocacy for women’s suffrage, disability rights and civil rights). It will premiere on Sept. 25 at 2 p.m.
The first play written by Pulitzer Prize-winning Birmingham journalist and author John Archibald debuts Sept. 24 at 7:30 p.m. “Pink Clouds” tackles huge questions of life, death, hypocrisy and hope, in Archibald’s signature style.
“John and his wife spent a couple of years up at Harvard during the pandemic and he called out of the blue one day to say that he was challenged with writing a one-act play,” said Cromwell. “I thought it was excellent and something we want to help get developed. It’s a beautiful, challenging piece about how we as humans dispense our compassion as we wrangle with heady issues such as abortion and our prison system.”
The final work in the festival will be “The Crossing,” at 7:30 p.m. on Sept. 23. Commissioned in partnership with the Alabama Coalition for Immigrant Justice, playwright, director and UAB professor Santiago Sosa weaves together real stories of the immigrant experience in Birmingham.
Red Mountain Theatre also announced its 2022-23 season recently, in what is called a “season of dreams.”
In October, they will bring back Tony-winning Jewish playwright/lyricist/composer/actor Jason Robert Brown for a special review concert.
The beloved Holiday Spectacular 2022 comes in early December and always includes a few Chanukah songs as well as new works.
Other shows coming to Red Mountain Theatre in 2022-23 include the Steve Martin-written musical “Bright Star,” “Dreamgirls,” and the popular movie-turned-musical “Shrek.”
The season wraps in July 2023 with the classic, beloved “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.”
“That was my first professional show. I was 19 and I did it on Broadway as well as the touring show,” said Cromwell. “It’s so simple and so beautiful. Joseph is a great story about finding grace and forgiveness. We’re thrilled to be presenting it. It’s a perfect way to cap our season of dreams.”