The Castillo Theatre, housed in the NYC headquarters of the All Stars Project on 42nd St, is a special place. It’s my favorite theatre. In my inbox today was an email from Castillo’s artistic director Dan Friedman. It personally and eloquently gives expression to Castillo’s values and aesthetics.—and I share it with you (with Dan’s permission).
Castillo has a long history of bringing together things that don’t usually come together. Artistic things. Political things. We also bring together people who don’t usually come together. Onstage. Offstage. Backstage. Mixing it up is Castillo’s “thing.”
Toyt fun a Seylsman, the New Yiddish Repertory Theatre’s Yiddish-language production of Death of a Salesman currently playing at Castillo, is a good example of this kind of odd, often awkward, and wonderfully magical “bringing together.” Death of a Salesman, by Arthur Miller, was written in English. It’s an American classic that exposes the “American Dream” of success as the nightmare of failure and humiliation that it is for most Americans. It’s being performed at Castillo in Yiddish, the nearly extinct language of the poor Jews of Eastern Europe, millions of whom emigrated to the United States (most to New York City) at the turn of the twentieth century. Millions of others who stayed in Europe were murdered in the Nazi extermination camps. The characters in this production are Yiddish-speaking Jews, crashing up against the very American text and very American characters Miller wrote. From that clash something new emerges, and we see Death of a Salesman, America, and Jews in America in new ways.
The clashing, crashing and creating doesn’t stop there. Toyt fun a Seylsman is being viewed by a multi-cultural, multi-racial audience. Some in the audience have never seen or read Death of Salesman before and many don’t understand Yiddish. At Castillo, we think it’s developmental to go beyond what’s familiar, to do what you don’t know how to do, and to experience something for the first time. Toyt fun a Seylsman gives us all that opportunity.
And if that’s not enough mixing it up, on the other side of our theater complex, the New Federal Theatre, one of the nation’s premier Black theaters, is performing In White America, a play about the history of African Americans written by a white man. More creative clashing and crashing. You can see both of these plays in one weekend if you want, and if you do you’ll see plenty of another sort of creative clashing – Castillo’s volunteer house staff, which is made up of people from every borough, and all walks of life, cultural backgrounds and ages. They are characters in the play that is Castillo and they make all the other artistic, political and social clashes of Castillo possible.
All of this reminds me of my family. My grandfather, Isadore Friedman, a Yiddish-speaking Jew from Bialystok, Poland, came to this country at the age of 17 in 1915 to escape the Czar’s draft. He came as an indentured servant, and to pay off the cost of his trip to America he had to work for two years on a ranch in New Mexico. (As unlikely as a Jewish cowboy is, one of my sisters still has the photo of him in his chaps and cowboy hat, holding a lasso.) He could speak Yiddish, Russian and Polish, but not yet English. For two years he had only his horse to talk to. When the two years were up he made his way to New York, became a boxer (as “Kid Izzy” he fought for the lightweight championship and lost) and later a housepainter. My father, Ken Friedman, was born in Coney Island and mostly raised in the Bronx. He became a communist at the age of 12, fought in the Spanish Civil War at 17 and spent his life as union organizer. He met my mother, an Irish working class woman named Margaret, in 1945 in a radar factory during World War II. I spent most of my childhood traveling around as my father organized and got fired, up and down the east coast. The first live music I remember hearing was a bluegrass band made up of striking furniture workers in Bryson City, North Carolina at Fourth of July picnic. Like my grandfather, I am a Jew and like my father, a socialist. At the same time, I’m a very different Jew and a very different socialist than they were. The cultural/social/political/historical construct I have become is qualitatively new.
That’s sort of what happens at Castillo. For the Castillo Theatre, diversity and multiculturalism are not simply about respecting one another’s cultures and histories; they’re about creating something new together, something that is not determined by the culture and history we bring into the rehearsal room oraudience seats, but that becomes something qualitatively other. That’s what I love about the New Yiddish Repertory’s Toyt fun a Seylsman. It brings different cultures, histories and sensibilities together, and something other has emerged. New Yiddish Rep’s production at Castillo is not just a Jewish Death of a Salesman – it’s something that never existed before: something American, Jewish and multicultural all at the same time.
I hope you’ll come “mix it up” with us at Castillo this fall!