Jewish playwright, black director collaborate in PPTC festival

Jewish playwright, black director collaborate in PPTC festival

Judy Meiksin, author of “Hanukkah in the Back Country” (above) and its director, Kim El (below)
Judy Meiksin, author of “Hanukkah in the Back Country” (above) and its director, Kim El (below)

While the last candles of Hanukkah were kindled last week, a play inspired by their light will continue its run through Dec. 17 as part of the Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company’s Festival in Black and White.

Written by Jewish playwright and native Pittsburgher Judy Meiksin, and directed by Kim El, who is African American, “Hanukkah in the Back Country” is one of 10 one-act holiday-themed plays produced this year by PPTC to bring artistic diversity to Pittsburgh’s Cultural District.

Each play in the festival that was written by a white playwright is directed by a black director, and each play written by a black playwright is directed by a white director, allowing for a fresh take on cultural themes, and an opportunity to learn about the traditions of others.

“ ‘Hanukkah in the Back Country’ is about a Jewish lesbian, whose girlfriend of six years has walked out on her,” said Meiksin. “Her big sister takes her for a hike in the back country, and they find obstacles there.”

While on their journey, the Jewish sisters encounter an African American lesbian, Meiksin said, and “Hanukkah represents the pulse that keeps them grounded.”

Meiksin grew up in Squirrel Hill, graduated from Taylor Allderdice, and earned her bachelor’s degree from Carnegie Mellon University and her master’s of fine arts in writing from Pitt. She now lives in Penn Hills, and is a member of Bet Tikvah. This is her third play produced by PPTC.

To have her plays directed by black directors is “a great experience for me as a playwright,” she said, because, artistically, Pittsburgh is generally a pretty segregated city.

“This festival bridges that gap — across race and across religions,” Meiksin said. “The festival is a safe place to ask questions about other cultures. Kim [El] and the cast had a lot of questions to ask about Hanukkah and about the gay culture.”

Coming from a different culture allows a director to approach a script from a new perspective, she said.

“Kim is not from the Jewish culture, so she can enter the play with very fresh eyes,” Meiksin said. “I’m very happy with what she’s done with it. She cast it beautifully.”

For El, a five-time director at PPTC, directing “Hanukkah in the Back Country” provided her a chance to research both the holiday, and the gay culture, and to challenge stereotypes, she said.

“The play itself forced me not only to look up the tradition and history of Hanukkah, but to avoid Jewish stereotypes,” El said. “The play is written about a Jewish lesbian who broke up with her girlfriend. That is another stereotype. The outcome is a very touching story.”

Other plays in the festival are set during Christmas, Ramadan and Kwanzaa.

“There is a nice range of holidays celebrated,” Meiksin said. “To see them celebrated together provides a nice treat.”

PPTC was founded by Mark Clayton Southers, a photographer-turned-steelworker-turned poet/playwright/director.  He took out a home equity loan in 2003 to purchase a theater in Garfield in an effort to counter the dearth of theatrical opportunities for minorities in the city, he said.

“We want to tackle theblack/ white issue that exists in Pittsburgh,” he said, noting that because few black plays are produced here, there are few opportunities for black actors and directors to work in their craft.

The PPTC produces several full-length plays each year, as well as the one-act Festival in Black and White.

“The festival is to allow people of different races to work together,” Southers said, adding that the festival also provides an opportunity for new playwrights and new directors to hone their craft with one-act plays.

“It gives them a chance to get their feet wet,” Southers said.

The theater company moved from Garfield to a 75-seat space on Penn Avenue in the Cultural District in January 2005. It found its current home in October 2011 in the penthouse at 937 Liberty Ave.

The PPTC has been producing a one-act festival each year since its founding, with the exception of the year following the first election of President Barack Obama, when the leadership of the theater erroneously assumed issues of race had been eliminated, Southers said. This is the first year the festival has had a theme.

Southers sees theater as an ideal medium through which to cross the cultural divide.

“Through theater, you can learn the ability to listen and to learn from people, and to respect different cultures,” he said. “It happens through listening to each others’ stories. Theater is an important component to our world, but underappreciated. It has the ability to change our culture and how we see things.

“White America has seen August Wilson plays all across the country,” he continued. “It’s a lot safer to go to a theater to hear these stories. What better way to experience different cultures than through theater?”

(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at

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