Two weeks before I commenced my playwriting degree, I received my first piece of homework via email.
Write a 10-minute play in the realist tradition.
I set upon the task immediately: the play would feature a family who have a lot of baggage relating to a dead patriarch. They get together for their first Christmas dinner without him and fight over his will, as well as over the ownership of his now-orphan parrot.
I researched the baby-Jesus out of this Christmas dinner. The sort of food they would be eating. The ways in which a Christmas meal is structured. Do they say blessings over the food like we would? Are there breaks for songs or readings? It never occurred to me that this same family could be squabbling over the same inheritance across a table set for Chanukah, Pesach, or a Friday night Shabbat. That would be a niche play, a Jewish play, and I was trying to become an Australian Playwright.
So, what’s an Australian playwright? What’s an Australian play?
Is Shabbat Dinner an Australian play? This is a play that director Anthony Skuse had to squeeze out of me in gentle dramaturgical sessions. I didn’t want to write a Jewish play. I didn’t want to be known as a Jewish writer. I was still at a stage when I didn’t like to talk about my culture in university classes, didn’t like to mention it in theatre settings.
There were people in the industry who called my hair a “Jewfro” or laughed about “being a Jew” when they were being cheap. These micro-aggressions – tiny ones compared to the more direct aggression that people from more marginalised communities experience – made me wonder if it was a good idea to write publicly as a Jewish artist.
Then there’s the generalised anxiety that comes with inherited trauma, particularly amongst descendants of Holocaust survivors. The fear that, one day, it might be dangerous to be known publicly as a Jew.
Anthony would explain to me the ways in which certain aspects of Jewish ritual resonated with him and his Catholic upbringing. I began to see parallels.
Most cultures have special foods, rituals and mythologies shared verbally or textually. I found that delving really specifically into these areas allowed me to reach out to people in a universal way. For example, our grandmothers might have made us very different soups in our youth, but that pot was stirred and those ingredients were seasoned with the intent to love, nourish and care. When you listen to this story and eat my soup, a sort of transposition can happen: you are suddenly drinking the soup your own Baba/Nana made you, and remembering her love for you.
I love when people come up to me after a night of Shabbat Dinner and share stories of their own grandmothers – matriarchs who might be British, Persian, Indigenous, Indian – and I realise we are all more connected than we might think.
Fredric Jameson wrote about food connecting people in an increasingly fractured world, when very little social glue is left. I began the journey of this play by thinking that my food was the “sugar” that would help the “medicine” of Jewish specificity go down.
But as this work has moved through multiple incarnations, my perspective has shifted. There is no reason why people should not relate to this story, and if they don’t, that says more about them than about my Jewishness.
The process of writing Shabbat Dinner has ended up being something of an internal reckoning. Delve into my culture, and write a family story that uses our religion – for a long time a source of embarrassment or shame – as an inspiration. Consider its special numbers, its song, its blessings, its odd and earthy rituals, and make art from them.
Celebrate this culture connected to food, to fire, to wine, to song, while also questioning its patriarchal origins and its complicated directives.
Create a dinner party about your late grandmother’s incredible food, and incidentally create a thesis on history, gender and ritual all at once. With wine!
But is it an Australian play, or a Jewish play?
I ask playwright Dan Giovannoni to help me answer this by reflecting on two of his recent works, Jurassica (about to have a Sydney season as part of its national tour) and Merciless Gods, an adaptation of the Christos Tsiolkas novel recently staged at the Griffin Theatre with Little Ones Theatre.
I asked him about his use of cultural specificity, and in particular, the choice to write some scenes of Jurassica in Italian without surtitles or translation. He says:
“Specificity lends authenticity, but more than that it helps create characters and relationships with depth. It’s a clue into another world. When I was writing Jurassica, I wanted the audience in parts to feel like my grandparents did when they came here, and sat in rooms or on trams or buses listening to a language they didn’t recognise. They had to listen hard. They had to work hard to make sense of things. They had to watch instead of listen. Some audiences loved it – I personally think the Italian language is beautiful to listen to, even if you don’t know what’s being said (though actually I think if you listen carefully you could/should get the gist).
Some audiences thought there was ‘too much’ of it – totally valid, but absolutely the point, I think. Just because you don’t understand it doesn’t mean it’s not for you. And I don’t say that in a ‘fuck you’ way – I was very sensitive about how I incorporated the Italian; I didn’t want to isolate people, I wanted to communicate a feeling.
The choice to include bits of Italian in the play (I would argue it’s not too much at all, but a perfect amount) was two fold – it made no sense to me to write something about people who struggle in a new world if language wasn’t part of their struggle; also I have such fondness for people (like my grandparents) who speak broken English, mostly because a lot of people think if you have an accent or speak broken English then you’re an idiot.
There’s another character in Jurassica, a woman from Belgrade – she has three degrees, speaks five languages, and people still look at her like she’s an idiot because she doesn’t speak English perfectly. What even is ‘perfect English’ anyway?
In Merciless Gods we included bits of Italian, too, and flavours of Turkish, Greek – these are the languages that Australians speak. Australians speak all languages. Apart from the people that were here first, our nation’s history is one of coming from somewhere else. We try and ignore that, and pretend that there is some authentic, intrinsic, essential ‘Australia’ that people who come here must aspire to and achieve. Rubbish. I’m not writing ‘Italian plays’ or even ‘migrant plays’, I’m writing Australian plays. My plays are very Australian.
Lots of first and second generation Australians have watched my plays and said ‘that’s me up there on stage, that’s my nonna and nonno, that’s my story’ – and lots of people who have been here much longer than two generations have said the same thing.
I like to think that with that particular play you’re watching a story about any family – and the specifics of how this family work and relate speak to lots of other families. So when Nonno Raffaele calls his grandson ‘tete’, you might not know what that means, and no one ever called you ‘tete’ when you were little, but I hope you think of how your own grandfather called you ‘tiger’ or ‘pudding’ or whatever other silly name your doting grandparents gave you. My specificity is your specificity, even if they’re not the same.”
In March and April this year, I worked intensively with Singaporean artist Pooja Nansi on a new show with Checkpoint Theatre called Thick Beats for Good Girls. In this play, we chart the evolution of our identities of “good Jewish girl” and “good Indian girl” to “hardcore-gangster-rap-loving good Jewish/Indian girl who also calls herself a feminist.”
It’s a play about who we are, who we want to be, and the journey of getting there, all set to a banging soundtrack.
One of my favourite parts of the play is when Pooja describes a personal and intellectual awakening she has after listening to a Nelly song, Country Grammar, which is ripe with references to St Louis, his home-town.
Pooja is emboldened by Nelly’s lyrics, so heavily grounded in the city he loves, its key streets, its quirks, and which is written for his community in St Louis to recognise and appreciate. She realises how often she is asked to package her work with footnotes for Singapore’s Chinese majority to understand her work, and resolves to do this no longer in future writing. I ask Pooja to join in the conversation:
“Yesterday I read a bunch of new poems at Singaporean University Yale-NUS and many of them were poems which had specific references to old Bollywood songs or Ghazals that my father listens to, and which I listened to growing up.
After the reading, a brown kid came up to me and said, ‘how do you deal with writing and presenting this work to an audience who might not get your references?’ And I thought about all the times I had sat in places and listened to people in speak publicly and in private settings and slip into Mandarin and not give a shit that I was there, or how many times I just was expected to smile politely through it.
It’s not like I am trying to exclude anybody by not explaining my cultural references, but I also refuse to lean into the expectation that I need to contextualise my lived experience for a majority group. So I said this to the brown kid, and he went, ‘but what if then those people don’t get it?’
I thought: well then, they don’t. Maybe I am at a point in my practice where I am writing for my community and my people. Does that make me not a Singaporean writer? No. Not unless you’re trying to say that my community, and people like me who live here, work here, have family here, aren’t Singaporean. In fact, the work actually makes the most sense in Singapore, because it is Singapore that has made me the most aware of my Indianness.”
In the lead-up to coming to Sydney for my show, I take a night off from the production tasks whirling around my head – the sourcing of heavy-duty trestle tables, cooking practice borschts – and I go to the movies.
I watch Spike Lee’s new film, BlacKkKlansman, and everything starts to crystallise. Lee cuts to footage of white supremacists marching the streets of Charlotesville in 2017, chanting “Jews will not replace us”. I notice the way in which fear and hatred of the Other – Jewish, African American, Muslim, LGBT+ people – is part of the DNA of so many Americans, and of course, Australians.
I write this piece in the month of Fraser Anning calling for a final solution. The week of Andrew Bolt calling out certain suburbs of Sydney and Melbourne as enclaves, ghettos. We are living in a time when neo-Nazism is resurgent, packaged as acceptable by many of our fringe parties, and furtively cloaked in the policies of the major parties too, their true intent obfuscated by weasel words.
It devastates me that the major Australian political parties only react to racism and white supremacism when it targets my people. We should be better than that.
There’s a moment in BlacKkKlansman where Adam Driver’s character, an undercover cop who is Jewish by birth but not by religious expression or cultural knowledge, reflects on his identity. “I’m Jewish, yes, but I wasn’t raised to be … I was just another white kid. I never thought much about it. Now I think about it all the time.”
This is the power of white-passing privilege, but it also speaks to something bigger: the imperative to work on the side of justice in whatever way we might have the ability.
For musician Jack Antonoff, it’s beginning to wear a Star of David necklace after Charlottesville. For me, it’s going into Dan Murphy’s in my non-Jewish Melbourne suburb and asking for kosher wine.
It’s explaining to people where my curls really come from when they inevitably ask about my big hair.
It’s telling the outback communities I work with about being Jewish, what that means, and hearing that I am the first Jewish person they have met.
It also comes out, like most things do, in the work I make: increasingly unapologetically Jewish content. In a few weeks I will have a play on about Barbra Streisand playing Yentl. I performed a story this year about a Bat Mitzvah girl who saves the world.
My next work in progress is about a Jewish Studies teacher who helps her students travel back in time to change patriarchy for the betterment of womankind. I write these works for political reasons – for representation – but I also write them because these stories are what I know. Anything else would be a performance.
I’m very aware that if someone were to google “Jessica Bellamy Jew”, they will find confirmation of what they’re looking for. For a long time, that prospect scared me. But then, as Audre Lorde reminds us all, “your silence will not protect you.”
A year ago, I sat with my sister as she had this quote tattooed on her thigh. I watched as these words were progressively marked on her skin, fresh black script unwavering on a skin canvas, dotted with blood. A reminder, and a fortification.
I reflect on a scene in the movie, where Black Power leader Kwame Ture delivers a powerful invocation and a series of provocations to his audience. “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? If not now: when?”
Everything freezes. I know these words. I know them so well. They come from an old sage, Rabbi Hillel, who is often quoted in Jewish discourse. I’m used to hearing these words in a different context: educational, not quite as visceral as they feel right now. Hillel’s questions are asked from Kwame Ture’s mouth, and as two struggles are merged, we are reminded to stay diligent in the struggle for equality and for liberation.
I unfreeze, feel the pins and needles of newly awakened skin, when Ture continues with an additional epithet, appended to these well-worn lines. He expands on Hillel’s original questions and asks a new question for the contemporary world: “If not me: who?”