In every culture, the return of the racial repressed takes a distinct theatrical form. Onstage, the ghosts of unburied bigotries that haunt the social imagination can rise up to be confronted—or to be ritually dismissed. The style in which they appear depends on the imagery and attitudes with which a dominant culture remembers—or hopes to forget—a shameful history of oppression.
Or so two disparate productions taking on the legacy of racial classification suggest: director Krzysztof Warlikowski’s lugubrious meditation on the vanished Jews of Poland that came from Warsaw to BAM for a four-day run last week, and William Hamilton’s well-meaning comedy about upper-crust white folks who wake up one morning to find they’ve become black. That the former is a somber if earnest affair that draws on such texts as Hasidic stories, the folkloric play The Dybbuk by S. Ansky, and contemporary prose by the Polish-Jewish writer Hanna Krall, while the latter is a minstrelsy-inflected sitcom, makes sense given the histories and contemporary situations of Poland and the U.S. Despite their vastly different approaches, each work seeks to rouse local demons of difference.
Warlikowski’s Dybbuk does so most literally, using the legend of a spirit who possesses a living person as a figure for Poland’s relationship to its missing Jews. In the Ansky play, a young bride’s beloved dies and takes up residence in her body when she is betrothed to another; in Krall’s story, an American man who is the son of a Jewish Holocaust survivor from Poland struggles with the sense that he shares his body with a half-brother, the child his father had before the war, who died at age six in the ghetto. Warlikowski places the two tales next to each other in this highly presentational and ponderous production.
At 42, Warlikowski is part of the generation that is gradually coming to terms with the decimation of a vibrant cultural piece of their national heritage that they never knew. It’s common for Poles his age to have grown up never even having heard that their country was once home to 3 million Jews, 90 percent of whom perished in the Holocaust, and almost all the rest driven out or underground in “anti-Zionist” purges of the 1960s. Works like his Dybbuk are part of a noble cultural movement of recovery.
To emphasize Jewish absence, Warlikowski casts the Israeli actor Orna Porat as the rabbi trying to exorcise the bride’s dybbuk, and unlike the rest of the Polish-speaking cast, she speaks modern Hebrew. This is just one of many heavy-handed and incompletely thought-through devices. Warlikowski provides some arresting stage images—the bride’s traditional circling of the groom at the wedding becomes frenzied dervishing—but the production sinks into sluggish self-absorption, appropriating a mishmash of Jewish material for an exploration that, in the end, is really about Poles.
Given America’s habit of ridiculing issues it wants to resist, Hamilton’s tone is aptly quite the opposite of Warlikowski’s. The New Yorker cartoonist whose squiggly drawings of snooty aristocrats skewer upper-class pretentiousness every week, Hamilton seeks to laugh the very concept of race out of existence. He couldn’t be more ably assisted by his top-notch cast, led by Julie Halston, Lynn Whitfield, and Reg E. Cathey (who has an especially uproarious turn trying out the new dance steps that enter his body once he has crossed the color line). The trouble is, the conceit quickly wears itself out. What really ought to be a one-act skit is stretched into two hours with predictable jokes and plot twists. The comedy starts to backfire when it leaves one’s mind so much space to wander, and its plaintive fantasy of a world where people learn not to care about race gives way to thoughts of Cathey outside the theater trying to hail a cab home.