She was raised on the floor in a hut on the outskirts of Tel Aviv. There was no electricity and not even streets nearby. Her harrowing, almost unimaginable childhood has now become one of the more unusual one-character shows, opening soon at City Center’s Stage 2.
“Daughter of the Wicked,” written and performed by Shanit Schwartz, previously performed to sold out shows and standing ovations in Los Angeles where critics called it “Storytelling at its finest!” and “a fascinating and mystical journey!” Now it’s our turn.
The play tells the story of Schwartz’s return to her homeland in search of her missing sister, who was taken during the Yemenite Missing Children Affair. She looks back at her upbringing as a Yemenite Jewish girl in the newly formed country of Israel, paying special tribute to her Rabbi father. There is history here, both personal for Schwartz, and for audiences always looking for new tales in old places. Or I should say seeking old stories coming from new voices.
“Shanit’s bravery in exposing the injustice of her sister’s cruel disappearance is stunning in her one woman show,” says TV producer and friend Carla Singer. “I have known her for over thirty years and for the first time I’ve learned the truth of her place in a tragic slice of Israeli history.”
The playwright insists the details may be hers, but that the story will resonate. “This is an immigrant story that many audience members can relate to,” she says, “about love and loss and the essence of the spirit that brought us to this country. I want to connect with those who may have been discriminated for the color of their skin and who may think that being ‘dark is inferior. I hope that when audiences see my play, they will have the courage to overcome their struggles and come to terms with their past. And that they will take away the message of what it means to be free, and the challenges that confront us all in maintaining that freedom.”
Hold off before thinking this one is too sad to spend almost two hours listening to. The playwright smartly asked her good friend, the film director Quentin Tarantino (who married an Israeli woman that Shanit introduced him to) about whether the show has too much doom and gloom.
He said to me, ‘don’t forget to make it funny, that humor is a very important thing behind the pain,’” she recalls. “So, I met with some great comedy writers in Israel who helped put the spice and humor into my journey.”
She calls this show a closing of a “full circle” in her life: not only in returning to her own difficult story, but to the stage as well, where she began many decades ago. And in this exact place. “I acted with Christopher Reeve in a play from the Manhattan Theatre Club which was at City Center,” she says. “Well, I’m back.”
As for the special challenge of doing a one-person show? Shanit acknowledges some of what others have said: that it is both exhilarating and lonely up there. “What I feel is that it is brutal,” she says, “so demanding and hard. But I don’t feel it is lonely, because I am also doing the voices of my mother, my father, my Moroccan neighbor and others.”
And while the sentiments may be difficult, (no spoilers here about if she found her sister) they are accompanied by unique sounds. The play features an original soundscape of authentic Yemenite tin drums and flutes composed by Israeli composer Lilo Fedida to transport audiences from the sands of Yemen to those huts of the Israeli settlement camps. And nine-time Oscar Nominee and Grammy Award winner James Newton Howard’s cello composition will guide audiences through the story.
“The most wonderful thing about Shanit is that she believes everything and anything is possible,” says writer and longtime friend Katherine Leiner. “When she started to write her play, she asked me if she thought she could do it, and I said, knowing her as I have for the last almost 40 years, I said,“ Of course you can.” And her reply was, ‘You’re right, I can, I know I can.’ And she did it. She stuck with it which of course is the hardest part of writing. But she did it. I can hardly wait to see this incarnation!”
The show catches an interesting moment in the Arts scene right now. Several books by women—including Priscilla Gilman and Ada Calhoun—tell the stories of their, if not quite wicked, then highly complex, fathers. Another play I recently reviewed at City Center, The Best We Could, is written by Emily Feldman about traveling with her father, whom she thought she knew. And the stages have rarely been as filled with women’s stories, including Jessica Chastain’s simmering turn in the pared down version of A Doll’s House. And the late and great playwright Lorraine Hansberry’s second and rarely seen play The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window, is opening soon on Broadway. Oscar Isaac is the biggest name in the show, but the three female characters have some of the most memorable moments.
Off-Broadway’s West Side too has been filled with female angst: including Alice Scovell’s (just ended) The Rewards of Being Frank, (which cleverly focused on Wilde’s women) and Smart by Mary Elizabeth Hamilton. (Currently at the Ensemble Studio Theater) The Mint Company’s never-produced Becomes A Woman, by novelist Betty Smith, was a hit as was Lynn Nottage’s rarely seen first work, Crumbs at the Table of Joy, at Theatre Row. All were the stories of young women seeking a future life in a sometimes hostile world.
Not unlike a young woman named Shanit who had to leave one country and come to another to find her strength and freedom.
Michele Willens’ “Stage Right—or Not” airs weekly on the NPR affiliate Robinhoodradio.