Bravery is standing up to the neo-Nazis coming to march in your hometown, as they did in Skokie in the late 1970s. But there is also bravery in using that historical event as the backdrop for a comedy.
Yes, a neo-Nazi group did threaten to march in Skokie in 1977, and in his semi-autobiographical comedy The God of Isaac , playwright James Sherman remembers what that was like, coming to grips with his Jewish identity under this shadow.
"It's about one American Jewish man's search for his identity; the march acts as a catalyst," he explained. "It's also about me and my mother."
The play will run from July 8-Aug. 27 at the Piven Theatre at the Noyes Cultural Arts Center in Evanston. The production is helmed by Jeff Award winner Dennis Začek, who first directed the play's world premiere at Victory Gardens Theater in 1985.
"I wrote the play in in New York in the early 1980s, when the proposed march was still fresh in people's memories," said Sherman. "The idea of a Neo-Nazi group marching in Skokie was deeply disturbing, particularly since the community was heavily populated with Holocaust survivors at the time. I never imagined that 30 years later the questions raised in the play would suddenly feel so resonant and topical, with white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups again making headlines."
Sherman has written more than a dozen plays that have been performed worldwide. A theater student at Illinois State University in the early 1970s, Sherman began his professional career as a writer and performer with The Second City in Chicago, receiving his M.F.A. degree from Brandeis University. In 1985, he began his long association with the Tony Award-winning Victory Gardens Theater in Chicago and became a Founding Member of the Victory Gardens Playwrights Ensemble. In the summer of 2006, James wrote and directed the movie of his play, Beau Jest , starring Lainie Kazan.
Sherman currently teaches playwriting and improvisation at Columbia College Chicago and DePaul University. He has been a teacher of playwriting and acting on the faculties of The Second City Training Center, Chicago Dramatists Workshop, and Victory Gardens Theater, and has taught theater from Southern California to South Korea.
Anita Silvert, who plays the mother in God of Isaac , was asked by Sherman to audition for that role after he saw her in the stage version of Beau Jest . "The dialogue between Isaac and his mother are a huge part of the comedy," Silvert said. "James really captures, beautifully, the voices of the people in that time and place." The play also finds humor in Isaac's imagining himself as various Jewish characters from theater and fiction, she said. Silvert, the director of enrollment for Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership, is a columnist for JUF News .
The Grippo Stage Company, which presents this production of The God of Isaac , focuses on cultural diversity, with a special interest in exploring Jewish themes and heritage. It is pro-Israel and uses theater to fight anti-Semitism. During its inaugural season in the summer of 2016, Grippo presented two world premieres, including The Ben Hecht Show , written by and starring Sherman.
But this play has special resonance for Silvert, who went to high school with Sherman at Niles West, since it is set in Skokie. "This is our town," she said. "Our hometown."
Tickets are currently available at grippostagecompany.com or by calling (800) 838-3006.
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