Date of production: 16 November 1999
Produced and presented by: Daniel Zylbersztajn
IN: Recently British Jewish
Out: For Deutsche Welle I am Daniel Zylbersztajn from London
Recently British Jewish Playwriter Julia Pascal and Black American Playwriter Bonnie Greer united their creative powers in a unique event at the British Library in London, which was to try to combine the work of the two writers in one event.
More significantly, in order to bring together, Jews and Blacks and their histories of collective sufferings, led by the voices of women. This was going to be a day that had the issues of trauma, loss and survival and how to enact these histories on stage, at its heart.
But not only was this a performing event, but it opened up to a critical debate, following presentations of Greer’s and Pascal’s works, a debate in which holocaust survivors, who were amongst the invited guests, actively participated and thus allowed for invaluable first hand commentary.
The two writers had worked previously together, Bonnie Greer has been acting for Julia Pascal and is now associate writer of the Pascal Theatre Company.
The event opened with extracts from various plays by Julia Pascal. Julia Pascal has gained international credibility as a second generation British Jew. Her plays include Theresa, The Dead Woman on Holiday, and Dybuk, all of whom deal with
holocaust survivor stories in one form or another. This year she released a new book entitled Holocaust Triology.
Here is one of the extracts taken from Julia Pascal’s play Dybuk:
[extract from dybuk]
After a break Bonnie Greer, continued the event with readings from her works, – which included extracts from her first novel Hanging by her Teeth, and passages from a series of forthcoming short stories of hers. These stories deal with conflicting identities of African American women at locations outside the United States. The following extracts were read from the story called “A Frivolous Girl”, which features the confrontation of a young African American teenager with her first visit to Africa:
[extract from a very frivolous girl]
The presentations of the two play writers, were followed by an open discussion, which centred on the question of the possibility of picturing the black experience along side the Jewish and vice versa.
This is Eugenie (say u-gine) Dodd a child survivor, who was inspiration to a forthcoming play called Dora:
“I think the experience is very different! There is the Jewish Experience and there is the black experience and I am not sure that they are exactly the same because there is a very, very different cultural background to them. And maybe you generalise it too much. You could say both of them are experiences of displaced people. But there is much more to it than that.”
Boonie Greer responded to Eugenie Dodd, referring to her father who served in the then still segregated US Army:
“I do have to go back to my dad. If my dad could make a link in himself. I mean he was a guy who saw lynching, forced to see lynching – forced to see a lynching, when he was six year old -the clan made them all watch this man lynch. And he was in the segregated army in the United States. If he could feel that this related to him on some level, and when he went to that concentration camp, that’s what he reported to us. Of course the particularities are absolutely different.”
[Dodd] “But then you see there is also the visual aspect of it. You are black, I might be Jewish! When in the Dybuk there is this aspect of: Do I disclose that I am Jewish, Do I say so, am I embarrassed about being Jewish? You can’t do that! That’s choice!”
This was Eugenie Dodd answering Bonnie Greer’s reflection. Julia Pascal challenged the point about Jewish invisibility, remembering experiences whilst playing in France:
“Personally I know. In France I was taken to be an Arab. So I had quite a lot of race hatred. That’s the nearest I can get! That was my personal journey into that. And the fact that Bonnie was in it: we are the same generation, and lived through certain things. That for me was my way to do that.”
So are the Jewish and the Black experiences the same? If Julia Pascal can feel racism for being mistaken to be an Arab in some racist corners of France, is it possible for a black person to understand the Jewish experience. Bonnie Greer again:
You have to hear me say to you that I can empathise. You see that’s the first thing that I am saying., and the rest of it is detail! You know what I mean? We have to work it out some kind of way. And I am not a spokes-person for anybody. All oppressed people have a commonality with that experience. The details and particulars are everybody’s details and particulars. I don’t deny that at all. But I am saying that there are things that I understand. And the things that I understand are the things that we should meet on, we should talk about, we should built on! And I understand everything because everything has happened to black people, so I understand it all! Except the thing is, what you chose and how you function. It is how we can start to work to build the things that we need to build! There is memory with a big M and there is memory with a little M. And I have on my wall pictures all the way back to my great great great great grand mother, little photos. One of them was a slave! And always through our family they talked about this experience. The waiting at the night for the door, the lynchings, the living in quarters where you weren’t fed, going out to work without any kind of recompense, the total fear that people lived into and people still live in many parts of the South, even as I speak. That memory, which happens to do with oppression, an art or creative person can use that, to pit into a particular mode. The rest of it, of course you check with the experts, with people who actually lived through it, with people who’ve gone through the particular thing that you’re writing on. But that general memory is something you can pull back from your own experience. And anyone who comes from an experience, an in fact anyone who doesn’t come from an experience of being particularly oppressed, if you work it through creatively, you can find a general moment that you can then use. So I feel that I was able to create that. Because I had from my own history those same experiences in general, not in particular but in general!
Bonnie Greer. Having established that there was a similarity in the perception of the experiences, what is the whole purpose of these representations? A member of the audience opened up the debate:
“ I am coming from a slightly different perspective. I was interested in what you were saying about memories. The minute you were talking about memory and relating memories and sharing memories is making it impossible for the denial of those memories. And that’s what I find key in what you’re all saying is how do we prevent that denial. I work with children who have been abused. And there is so much about denial that that actually happens. So much about denying themselves that it actually happened to them. There comes a point when they can talk about it, which may not be for many years and what we have to do is to equip ourselves against that denial. That is what removes stereotyping, that is what fights prejudices, that’s the way to tackle. “
In this light the point about traumatic collective experiences, their memory and the prevention of their denial become very acutely relevant. Bonnie Greer put it like that:
“We can remember and we can make words. So as long as we keep making language, and with our bodies and with our minds and with our voices, we can at least pass on the legacy of not denying! It’s true for black people. It’s what black people try to get, all of us in the Diaspora, the African Diaspora, really try to get the rest of the world to see, is not denying, not deny what happened. And you are doing this as well, Jewish people: We must stop denying, and there is so much denial going on. That’s the key.”
In her concluding words Julia Pascal added a contemporary example of such denial. Referring to the holocaust revisionist David Irving, who has been in various trials for holocaust denial, including countries such as Australia, Germany and recently Great Britain, she stated:
“Yeah, I just bring it back to the David Irving case. The whole thesis of that denial is to deny that Hitler knew what was going on, and that is why today is important and why we are connected, cause it’s the same story – from them – and that’s why it is terribly important why we go on making the work. What else can we do? We the next generation, who didn’t know it directly, but it’s so close to us, it’s our duty to tell those stories in any way we can!”
produced for DW in 1999 – full transcript follows – all rights reserved!
The implications for these words are grand. Not only for the Jewish and African Diasporas. Denial of the existence of suffering equally applies to millions and millions of forgotten souls wherever we live or you may listen, who bear evidence to the worst in human nature. All to quote Bonnie Greer, are different in particular but the human traumas and nightmares, are equal in general.
For Deutsche Welle, I am Daniel Zylbersztajn from London.
© 2000 DeutscheWelle
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