- “Are we? Are we human?” – a line of dialogue from Sheltered
- “Noah said ‘No, no you’re full of sin. God’s got the key and you can’t get in.” – lyrics of “Didn’t It Rain,” a spiritual
- “She called him everything but ‘a child of god.’ – a familiar saying I used to hear when I was a child among Black American adults when they were describing a lively argument.
Since Sheltered, onstage now at Theater J, takes place in 1939, it is comfortably and delightfully nostalgic, at first, to see everyone onstage look like they have just stepped out of – or into – a production of “The Philadelphia Story.” The overwhelming impression I had from the beginning of this quite astonishing production was a sense that everything – from makeup to canapés to conversation – had received a coat of lacquer or enamel: some bright reflective material that was holding the lives of these people together with shiny detail and precision.
“The terrorizing of people of African descent in America, the Aframerican embrace of the strategy of The Great Migration to escape that terror, and the way Aframerican suffering and tentative survival is refracted by and calibrates with the suffering of American Jews, is background noise in the first act of this play, like an animal scratching in the walls of the house.” – Gregory Ford
The events in this play take place just at the end of the Great Depression and the rise of anti-semitism and this group of people is feeling the strain. But the hostess’s dress still shimmers, the women’s hair, lipstick and purses are shiny, slick and stiff. Every effort is being made to keep things in place. And the host has prepared a lamb for the evening meal. (In a substantial way, this play highlights the women’s roles in holding things in place. Extremely transparent – though dramaturgically satisfying and audience-approved – subterfuges are used to get the men off of the stage so that the women can conduct existentially necessary business.)
Continuing its evocation of the drawing room comedies of the 1930s, this is a play that is over-stuffed with dialogue. Part of the unspoken subtext for us now of all of this glittering and shining talk is: we are full of terror. We are terrified because of “the economy, stupid.” And we are terrified because we are the targets of people with whom we share the earth and who want us off of it and who from time to time – now being one of those times – take measures to make that happen. That was us in 1939 and this is us in 2020.
The title’s reference and connection to the plot is straightforward. Against all odds, an American Jewish couple (Evelyn and Leonard Kirsch) seeks to provide shelter, in the USA, to a group European Jewish children as the persecution and killing of Jews and other non-Aryans in Europe threatens to escalate. They hold a dinner in order to invite another couple (Roberta Bloom and Martin Bloom) to sponsor a child in their home. The fact that we in 2019 know how this turns out and the fact that it is not a Schindler, but other Jews seeking to save these children, are pointed underpinnings for our involvement in the story.
There is also something unspoken about isolation in this play. While the focus of the story is on the coming horror against Jews in Europe, the play also percolates with America’s terrorism on its people of African descent subsequent to the genocide of the country’s indigenous inhabitants.
Shielding your own life and the lives of those related to you from genocide is a big enough task to be sure. But can that task be done without paying attention to the genocide of others around you who are maybe not so related to you? What is the relationship of one group’s genocide to another? Even the colored cooks employed in the separate households of guest and host of this play are cousins to each other.
Sheltered closes February 2, 2020 at Theater J. DCTS details and tickets
The terrorizing of people of African descent in America, the Aframerican embrace of the strategy of The Great Migration to escape that terror, and the way Aframerican suffering and tentative survival is refracted by and calibrates with the suffering of American Jews, is background noise in the first act of this play, like an animal scratching in the walls of the house. Irritating. Nerve-wracking, because you can’t do anything to silence it permanently. And this noise is close.
How close? The male guest’s mother secretly “relaxed” her hair. Just like my sister, my mother and her mother before her. In order for this technique to be effective, it has to be undertaken with ritual regularity. Now that’s a familiar trope. The cost and effectiveness of assimilation is something else that is subtext in this play. It is a word that we don’t speak very much in real life now because we know it is not something to aspire to: after Black is Beautiful made ‘nappy’ hair fashionable no matter what your skin tone. But assimilation is a major issue in this play. Just as we have had the opportunity to consider the effects of internalized white supremacy on Black people on the continent of Africans (School Girls: or, the African Mean Girls Play), in watching Sheltered we get to consider some of the same effects on relatively privileged Jews in America.
The reasons for straightening or relaxing hair are many. But when it comes to white supremacy, relaxing your hair can be one strategy to decrease the possibility of being found to be (or being perceived as being) non-Aryan (or at least to have one less non-Aryan point to count against you). It is a way to ensure that you carry in your presentation of yourself one less thing that makes certifiably white people uncomfortable with you. One less thing that will keep you from being seen as someone who is entitled to be treated equally as a human being, as a child of god: straight hair that is also, if possible – miracle of miracles – blonde.
(Which brings us to the 1939 movie version of The Wizard of Oz. In its original conception MGM was hoping to borrow Shirley Temple to cast in the role of Dorothy and they did costume Dorothy with a blonde wig originally. When Jewish director George Cukor was assigned to helm the production for a few weeks, he replaced the blonde wig with Judy Garland’s natural brown hair, ensuring the classic we know and embrace today.)
Despite the fact that the colored cooks still worked to keep the lynch mob at bay through their culinary efforts in the private northern homes of doctors and accountants. Despite covenants in housing that excluded Jews. Despite the overlapping migrations, either having happened or about to happen, that we are invited to think about, we have no choice but to fight for something that looks like hope. The male guest in Sheltered talks about seeing a play in which there was no artifice, no set, no curtain to hide the secret workings of the play everyone was engaged watching. He considered this transparency – this honesty – and lack of hiding and artifice to be what made the play “American.” The Viennese mother of one of the children who will be brought over from Europe asks her child’s American savior where her child will live. The name of the place is Providence.
It’s a question that is worth asking for ourselves. In 2020, as we see the recurrent rise of anti-semitism and the increased dismissal and disposability of brown and Black lives, can we envision a Providence for ourselves to live in? Can we share our vision of Providence with each other?