Arts & Culture

Black and Jewish on Broadway

This year's recently announced Tony nominations included seven for Broadway's "daring musical" Passing Strange, among them best musical, best original score, and best performance by a leading actor. I first started hearing buzz about the show many months ago when … Read More

By / May 19, 2008

This year's recently announced Tony nominations included seven for Broadway's "daring musical" Passing Strange, among them best musical, best original score, and best performance by a leading actor. I first started hearing buzz about the show many months ago when it was still playing at the Joseph Papp Public Theater in downtown Manhattan, but it wasn't until it moved to Broadway in February that I finally saw it. In addition to personally connecting with the way it handled of questions of identity, I found the music to be fantastic, the script witty, and the performances dynamic. Clearly I'm not the only one who feels this way—the New York Times gave it a smash review when it opened, describing it as “bursting at the seams with melodic songs," and "a sprawling work of performance art."

Shortly after seeing it, I learned that one of the cast members—Rebecca Naomi Jones—was black and Jewish. We recently sat down to discuss the show and how it relates to her mixed identity. Here's what Jones had to say. How would you describe Passing Strange? I would describe it as a coming-of-age story from the perspective of a young black kid, “Youth,” growing up in South Central, Los Angeles in the 70s—a community that was heavily church-based and middle class, where everyone is about doing the right and respectable thing. This kid doesn’t quite buy it. He doesn’t have faith in it and he can't get answers about what is real, and feels that reality is different from what is being put on him. He meets one particular person who encourages him to go and explore the world, so he goes to Amsterdam and then Berlin, where he meets people who blow and expand his mind.

Youth is on a quest for something that he can believe in and hold on to. There is a conflict between this thing he wants to find—that he can only seem to find in art—and the people in his life who seem to bind him. Unfortunately the people who are trying to give him love are not enough for him. He discovers that the one thing that's always there for him and that he can have faith in is music. The reviews of the show have been fantastic. Congratulations. How does that feel? It feels really special. I have a feeling it is not like other Broadway shows, because the process of creating it was so unique—extremely collaborative. All the actors have been a part of the show for the almost two years since it opened at Berkeley Rep, so we've all been cooking it together. The wild thing is that now we're on Broadway. It feels like the rules have changed, even though it's still us. I am so impressed with the range of people of people who are coming to see it, and so happy that people are getting it. How did you find the show—or did it find you? I got a call from my agent a couple of summers ago saying that I had an appointment for an audition at the Joseph Papp Public Theater in New York, and that is was going to be a co-production between the Public Theater and Berkeley Rep. I was excited, because I had previously been cast by the casting directors at the Public Theater, who are the nicest people to audition for—very peaceful and non-judgmental. Then I read the script and felt like I was coming home—[it was] such a different version than what we have now, but even then it was so full of things that many of us think but don’t say, characters that are so rich and full and diverse, music and metaphors that are poetic and beautifully written, and humor that is touching and ironic. I loved that black actors were playing black and white people—love that it wasn't predictable, not angry. I found it to be really approachable, but at the same time something new. For the audition, I had to read a monologue with a German accent. At that moment I just fell in love with the piece because, growing up half black and half Jewish, I never felt like there was one specific place where I fully belonged. That continued with my work, because the way you look determines what part you play, so I have had to do a lot of work to understand some of my characters. But with this piece I was able to touch on so many parts of myself. I had a blast at the audition and had a callback the day after. The day after that I found out that I got the part. The whole process was very quick.

A friend of mine who was involved in the show suggested I go see it because he thought it would resonate with me, which it very much didso much so that I have now seen it twice, which is a first for me with a Broadway show. What about it particularly resonates for you? What resonates for me is probably a lot of what resonates for everyone—constantly being in search for one’s true state of being, trying to find the part of me that is most me. I am proud of having grown up in the middle of a few cultures. The play is so special for me because I am able to touch different kinds of people. I also relate to Youth’s love of music—my father is a musician, and I grew up with music being a big part of my life. In Passing Strange, Youth is on a search to find “la real.” How would you define ”la real”? I think “la real” is different for everyone, but my ideal is when pretense is gone and the concept of what's "appropriate" isn't what rules and guides everything in one’s life. “La real” would be the place where what is natural occurs and where honesty lives. But it's so conceptual, which is why it's a rough thing to strive for. I would hope we are all looking for that, but some people don’t want that—they want to be in a place that is more secure than honest.

We all have choices, and the kid in the play makes choices [in an attempt to] blow the truth open, but he is also wounding the people who care about him. In a way I agree with his choices, but everything comes with a price and he pushes away the people who love him unconditionally, because he thinks there can’t be love without understanding. It's a play about making mistakes and how they define who you are. Youth learns his lesson about balance in the end. Tell me more about you. Where did you grow up? I was born and raised in New York—Tribeca, before it was called Tribeca. Back then it was just a place for hippies and their kids with lots of old landing docks. Now there are tons of fancy restaurants.

If you had to, how would you define your identity? I would say I am a half-black and half-Jewish New Yorker. So many New Yorkers are so many different things. That’s what was interesting about growing up in Manhattan—being mixed I wasn’t a freak. Not until I got to college in North Carolina did I realize how strange it was for the rest of America.
Where does your mixed identity come from? My dad is black and my mom is white. My dad is West Indian, Jamaican, and my mom's side is Eastern European. My dad grew up in Los Angeles and my mom grew up in Massachusetts, and they met in New York in the 70s.

Is there a story? My dad is 6’1” and mother is 4’10” and ¾. He is 17 years older than she is. My dad is a musician. He was the musical director of group called the Cadillacs, and to supplement his income he was a singing coach. He was giving singing lessons to a friend of my mother's who said to her, "I think you would like this guy." They went on a double date with her husband, fell in love, got married, had me—and are still together three decades later.

What is your father’s relationship with Judaism? It has changed through the years. When he met my mom and they fell in love, he never converted to Judaism but being an Episcopalian wasn’t a major part of his life. When I was little he used to wear a Star of David and come with us to synagogue. When I got to high school my dad seemed to care less and my mom began to care more, and he started letting her become more involved while he detached himself a bit. It evolved into her thing. No animosity, but it is her thing. What kind of connection do you feel to being Jewish? Being Jewish for me has always been about the community. There's an aspect of being Jewish that I think I understand only because I am Jewish, and there is something very comforting about that. Once I got a little bit older it became less about what you believed in and more about the stories and how they informed our everyday lives—a lot about history and morals. I grew up more involved in the Jewish-half then the Christian-half. My dad was Episcopalian, but I grew up in a Reform temple where I went to Hebrew school and had a Bat Mitzvah. My mom got more involved in the temple when her parents passed away. I think she got involved as a way to connect to them. Has your connection to Judaism changed at all over the years? Yes—it is always evolving. When I was really little it was just something that I did because of my mom. Synagogue was a place where I knew everyone, and they knew me. I was a member of the choir and I had Hebrew school every week. I also went through a period more recently when I felt more odd than I had before in the synagogue because of the way I looked—like people were looking at me and thinking, “Is that someone’s friend, or someone converting?” I'm not sure if it was just in my head, but I felt more apprehensive about going because I was afraid I would feel uncomfortable. Why did you think you would feel uncomfortable? It must have been caused by the fact that I had just started to realize my own blackness. I am really close to my mother, and so I always identified with her culture. Growing up, I had a lot of white friends. At school the majority of kids were white so I always was the minority, but it was never an issue. Race just wasn’t something I really thought about until much later. I think it was towards the end of high school when I started to be more aware of it. At that time, I became close friends with a girl who was also mixed, and there was something really nice about being close to someone else who was mixed. I felt like, “Oh! I get why people want to be with people who are like them.” There is something comforting about it in an indescribable way. That feeling continued when I went to college at the North Carolina School of Arts where I was around people who in certain ways were like me—theater people—but in other ways were different from me. Every year they would do one black play by August Wilson or some other black playwright, and there were never enough black kids in each class, so all the classes would come together. That was the first time since I was very little that I was part of a close group of all brown people. I didn’t seek it out, but I do remember being in rehearsal for a week with these kids in the play, and getting really close and realizing this different level of comfort that I had— this indescribable thing which was so interesting.

And how to do you feel now? For the past few years I have stopped caring as much about what people think, and started to feel like maybe people don’t care as much as I thought they did. Recently I have started to feel really proud of being a part of two rich cultures with so much history. I do feel rooted in the Jewish culture even though I am not super involved in it.

How do you put your two identities together as one? I think I am still constantly figuring it all out. I think that I really savor the traditional things that I love about being Jewish and the same things I love about being black. I am still searching for my relationship with spirituality, but in the meantime I feel attached to traditions that are Jewish, like Passover, which always makes me feel thankful to be a part of something. What has been beautiful with Passing Strange is we all call each other "altern-a-negros." We all feel like so many things. I am finding a new type of community in that—everyone is curious about each other and their cultures. In the end, that is what the play is all about: This kid who is curious about what other cultures are out there. That is what I am focusing on: Staying proud of being many things. Part of what makes me so happy about being both black and Jewish is the opportunity to really understand the experience of being both. I have learned a lot from both cultures. It is an interesting thing to balance both—about treasuring the things that you love about each. What, if any, connection or community do you feel to other people who are both black and Jewish? I don’t have a community of black Jewish people in my life, but whenever I meet or hear about other black Jews I always get really excited about it. I think of people in the entertainment industry, like Lenny Kravitz, who are black and Jewish, and it makes me proud just to know that they are out there. I feel like they are my people.

Related: On Being Black, White, and Jewish