Alice Eve Cohen’s play Oklahoma Samovar follows the footsteps of a family across five generations, from Latvia to Brooklyn, Kansas and Oklahoma. There are no stops on the Upper West Side, where Cohen lives — but the story likely resonated with the neighborhood’s Jewish community on Wednesday night when it was performed at the Marlene Meyerson JCC during the two-day Festival of New Jewish Plays.
“The play has a lot to do with the complexity of identity — Jewish identity — and the complexity of assimilation,” she said. “And the complexity of anti-Semitism.”
“Oklahoma Samovar,” about Cohen’s ancestors’ participation in the 1889 Oklahoma Land Rush, is one of two winning plays to emerge from the 2021 National Jewish Playwriting Contest; Part of the JCC Festival of New Jewish Plays in association with the Jewish Plays Project, it was directed by Eric Nightengale to be read by a cast of scripted actors.
The pay-what-you-wish event on Wednesday November 30th and Thursday December 1st also included readings of “Madeleines” by Bess Welden, winner of the 2022 Jewish Playwrights Competition, and “A Moving Picture”, by 2020 Jewish Playwright Competition Winner Jennie Berman Eng.
“I cannot stress enough how amazing it is to bring the JPP back to New York with these three brilliant playwrights,” said David Winitsky, artistic director of the Jewish Plays Project, in a statement.
Examining the past in a rocky present
To write Oklahoma Samovar, Cohen dug up her own family history, which she also explored in her 2015 memoir, The Year My Mother Came Back. Their ancestors, Jake and Hattie, fled Latvia as teenagers in 1887 to escape the Russian army. A few years later, according to Cohen, they became “the only Jews in the Oklahoma Land Run” when settlers usurped lands previously earmarked for resettled Native American tribes. “It’s kind of a foundational story for me, so it went through a lot of development,” she said. “It’s a story I’ve learned a lot from.”
The play offers a fictional account; Emily, a college student, makes her way to Oklahoma at the direction of her late mother, who alludes to an untold family network in a final note before her death. Storytelling, community and identity are integral parts of what is unfolding.
“Emily is a law student; She rigorously seeks objective answers. Of course there are no objective answers when you’re trying to search for meaning and what’s important when the person you loved most dies,” Cohen said. “There’s a lot to examine the past while making it up. There is no way of knowing exactly what happened.”
In the present, the JCC festival launched into a rocky socio-political climate. The week before, former President Donald Trump was criticized for showing rapper Ye, formerly known as Kanye West, and white nationalist Nick Fuentes – both of whom have spread anti-Semitic rhetoric online – in Mar-a-Lago at the start of his latest bid hosted the white house. A JCC spokesman said the community center “does not comment on political matters”.
When Cohen learned in late 2020 that “Oklahoma Samovar” had been selected as one of 10 finalists for next year’s National Jewish Playwriting Contest, another concern dominated the news cycle: COVID-19. At the start of the new year, she met up with her fellow finalists via Zoom to read and analyze each other’s scripts.
Samples of each play were shown in theaters across the United States and Israel, where audiences voted for the winners. The JCC’s festival brought Cohen back to set in person for the first time since the pandemic began, she said.
A cast of six actors plus one person to read stage directions performed “Oklahoma Samovar” behind music stands and with “minimal suggestive staging,” Cohen explained Wednesday night. Rehearsals spanned several weeks, allowing her to further revise the script. “It’s really important to hear real voices from real actors bringing characters to life,” said Cohen.
Her next piece focuses on the Upper West Side. Hotel Limbo tells the story of Hotel Belleclaire, which was transformed into a temporary shelter for the homeless during the pandemic. It is also Cohen’s longtime home.