LENA: Zhili bili …
That’s Russian for “there lived, there were”…
That’s how all the stories start.
It’s like “once upon a time,” but… Russian.
There lived, there were.
There were… so we know this is all happened a long time ago.
Somewhere else. Probably before you were born.
Someplace else. Probably that you’ve never been to.
And we broke our fasts with Samizdat. We dined on magnitizdat. Rengenizdat. Forbidden music. Unauthorized recordings, bootlegs, jazz on bones. Listened to by millions that you could only play five or six times before the needle cut through the tune. We ate paper and X-rays, but we were still starving.
-The Russian & the Jew
The Russian & the Jew, a new play written by Emily Louise Perkins & Liba Vaynberg, tells the story of two women struggling for self-determination in the 1960s in Belarus, the Soviet Union, against the backdrop of a quasi-fascist Communism. They are both doctors, and their intersecting identities and pasts are put to the test as rumors grow of their possible escape to America or Israel. Drawing from Anna Karenina and Russian fairy tales, as well as Vaynberg’s and Perkins’s own family histories, The Russian & The Jew weaves a deeply human fable of a time and place very foreign to our contemporary New York lives. But amid lofty aspirations for equality under Communism, sexism and anti-Semitism bleed through the well-meaning veneer in ways that might feel oddly familiar, here and now.
Vaynberg and Perkins met performing in Bekah Brunstetter’s The Oregon Trail with Fault Line Theatre at The Women’s Project Theatre in 2017, and they have been developing this play ever since. It will premiere at the Tank in December. I sat down with the dynamic duo of Emily and Liba for a wide-ranging conversation about collaborative writing, the personal and the political, and what theater can aspire to be. Here are some excerpts:
Jess Chayes (Rail): How did you get from co-starring together in [Bekah Brunstetter’s] The Oregon Trail to co-writing a play and producing it together?
Emily Louise Perkins: So, we didn’t know each other prior to being in Bekah Brunstetter’s The Oregon Trail. And we just fell in love; we always would walk home together after the show, and we were dreaming and talking about how we both always wanted to adapt Anna Karenina. And that’s where it started.
But then we specifically talked about how: wouldn’t it be great if it was about Anna and Kitty, who are these two main characters in the novel. We talked about how in the Tolstoy novel Anna and Kitty are of equal value, but everyone only talks about Anna now. So we talked about reimagining them. We decided we were going to write it then.
Liba Vaynberg: We knew we were going to write it then. I think that the fact that we wanted to focus on the women in Anna Karenina is a direct outgrowth of the nature of…
Perkins and Vaynberg: The Oregon Trail.
Vaynberg: And even the fact that we end up updating it to the Soviet Union—which is biographical for my family and biographical for Moti’s [Margolin, Perkins’ husband] family, which Emily is very close to—is ironically an outgrowth of The Oregon Trail as well because that play is so much about ancestry.
And then also the fact that every night the play ended with the two of us looking into each other’s eyes. Literally, my character [in The Oregon Trail] rejects romance as a potential solution to her problems and finds the answer in her friend slash ghost sister’s eyes. Bekah is tapping into something about sisterhood and looking to yourself that is actually very difficult to find onstage. I don’t think there are very many stories that choose to focus on female friendship or female politics. There are actually a lot of political stories, but they tend to revolve around men—like, characters that betray each other politically or deal with high profile political decisions tend to all be men. Whereas the woman is usually a romantic appendage. In our play, the men tend to be more of the ingénues and/or husbands whereas the women tend to be more of the political actors.
But yeah, really it came out of Anna Karenina and taking long walks home after a show in which we kind of fell in love every night.
Rail: You’re tapping into something that I love about the play. The Russian and the Jew is described in the marketing language as a “political fairy tale,” and I think what’s so unique about the play, and wonderful, is this merging of what feels like fantastical and fairy tale stories with deeply political human issues that women were facing in the Soviet Union. Is that a conscious merging? Where do those influences came from?
Vaynberg: We had explored fairy tale stuff initially, and then I cut it. And Emily was actually the one who said I really think we need this other world. To me the merging has to do with: why are politics difficult? It’s because there is a disparity between what we aspire to and what’s real. And the question of liberalism and conservatism has to do with which one you are addressing. So the fairy tale in a way has to do with the aspirations of the two women that then run into political realities inherent in their identities.
Rail: I was actually thinking about the word aspirational a lot when thinking about the play.
Vaynberg: Well, I think it is about dreams.
Perkins: And hope, and hope!
Vaynberg: Anna Karenina is about dreams. And it’s—how do dreams get politicized? Because they do. There’s no such thing as an apolitical act. Dreams are also never apolitical. They have to do with what you expect, what you think you deserve in society, what you’ve been led to believe you deserve. And what you’re allowed to earn and not earn, which is huge for these two women.
Perkins: In systemic oppression, you’re both complicit in it and you’re a victim of it—and so we’re really asking that question in this play, with everyone in it. And it’s familiar to me in my life, which is wild, because this is a different world. It is sort of the other side of the universe to me.
Rail: This is a merger of Anna Karenina and a lot of historical material but also autobiographical material. I’m curious where that comes in for both of you. What parts of The Russian and the Jew feel the most autobiographical, and what do you think that brings to the piece?
Perkins: Well, my husband is a first-generation Russian Jew, and since we’ve been together he has started to inform me about great Russian literature—he’s really been my avenue into this world. But then Mama Rosa, his mother, and I formed our own friendship—we got very, very close. When we first started working on this show, I would just spend hours with her, asking her every question I could think of. And she is a wildly political, highly intelligent, well read, phenomenal human being. And she had a lot to say, and she was not afraid to say, “No, no, no, they would never do that. They would never to this.”
For me, it was through interviews, and going back through the script, and going back over it with Mama Rosa and running it by Moti—because he has a background in Russian history and American history—and just immersing myself in what it was like in 1968 in Israel and in the Soviet Union and in the United States, because the play needs to have that kind of macro knowledge in order to be true at all. Because we are creating a fantasy. We’re fantasizing about what it was like for them.
Vaynberg: I’m the first person in my family born in America, which is something I didn’t realize until we started working on this play. I’m very literal about autobiography. My sister’s name is Lena—which is the character I play [in The Russian and The Jew]. The first thing I ever wrote was Scheiss Book, which is an entirely autobiographical, Spalding Gray-style show, that is just entirely about me and my life and storytelling and all that—so I think autobiography has a huge place in art. Because I think whether or not you acknowledge it, everything you do is expressed in your art, somehow, even if it’s filtered through a different feeling or through a different understanding of whatever the event was.
But yeah, my first language is Russian; the women in my family have been doctors for three generations, if not four. So that was part of the reason to set it in a hospital. And also to try to wrap our minds around the pernicious and sneaky ways that sexism manifests itself. So women can have full time jobs, and you can have this idea of the equality of the sexes under Communism, but because the political system is so broken, people are constantly reverting back to old fashioned values.
A lot of the text is literal quotes from Mama Rosa, from my father, from my mother, talking about how they dreamed of America. Like the pictures of fruit outside supermarkets—my father actually received pictures like that and was like, “Holy shit, you can pick your own produce.” He was amazed. Choice is something that they were mind-blown by in the Soviet Union, I think.
Rail: So on a slightly different subject, you’re both very accomplished actors as well as writers. Emily, obviously I know a little more about your path, as we worked together for eight years in the Assembly; and Liba, I have read about your work as a writer. I’m curious, what was your journey from acting into writing, and how is The Russian and the Jew an evolution of your process?
Vaynberg: I feel like I started as a pre-med, and then became an actor. I wrote Scheiss Book largely based on frustration with the industry and frustration with the way I think female artists are processed, but this is my first time collaborating. I’m a solo writer. I’m trained in a lot of devised work, but I’ve only interacted with it as an actor, not a writer. This is my first time collaborating, which is really scary and also really amazing, because I never would have chosen to collaborate unless it was with someone that I thought was deeply intelligent and inspiring. Because if there’s only two of you, then everything is 50-50, there’s no tiebreaker. So if you disagree, you have to hash it out until you agree. It is serious business.
And the other ways that this is different is that my other plays surprisingly have nothing to do with Russian Jewry at all. This is my first play that uses quotes from my parents, that is exactly about my identity. And it’s ironic that working with somebody else is what inspired me to come back to that. Because I did say I’ve always wanted to write a play about the Soviet Union, and Emily said: why can’t this adaptation be that?
Perkins: I think you know it, but I will say it. I was sort of born and raised a writer in the Assembly, which is a devised theater company that you run, Jess, but…I don’t want to be in an entertainment play anymore if it doesn’t have some sort of social justice angle. I am also not into didactic plays; this is a love story, nobody’s teaching any lessons. But I do think it is really fun and also really makes me a better person to dive into some of these issues and immerse myself in them and try to listen a lot, and to make plays structured around some sort of big question.
Liba talked a lot about co-writing which is very specific and difficult, and hugely rewarding—and a lot about listening and holding up someone else’s dreams—which is hard, frankly. And really important. And another way of making a play that’s bigger than your own self and your own ego.