Equality in focus: In "Create Equal,' four plays will examine America's promise

Staged readings and a discussion will examine the ideals and realities of the goal of equality

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PITTSFIELD — We may all be created equal in theory, but in practice that equality has an uneven American record.

That's the message from a set of four plays that will be read at the sanctuary in Temple Anshe Amunim in Pittsfield on Monday, Aug. 21.

"We thought it was time to put them together," said playwright Jesse Waldinger.

The performance, "Created Equal: Battling Oppression," is a coproduction with nearby Congregation Knesset Israel. It follows a concert at Kesset from Aug. 13, "'Tikkun Olam'- To Repair the World: A Tribute to Peter, Paul and Mary."

"It's a combined presentation," said temple Office Manager Keren Weiner.

A community talk will follow the reading in the social hall.

Jesse and his wife, Barbara, the director of the plays, are members of the temple's congregation and have been teaching acting classes and facilitating performances there for years, said Weiner.

"They do something every year," Weiner said.

The staged readings required some rehearsal. Actors Andrew Joffe, Lora Lee Ecobelli and Hana Kenny read "Mrs. Butler Returns" for Barbara and Jesse on Tuesday afternoon.

Of the quintet, only Kenny lives in the Berkshires, in Great Barrington.

The other four live in New York: the Waldingers live in Canaan, Joffe in Craryville, and Ecobelli in Catskill.

The three actors met the Waldingers at the Plays in Progress group which meets monthly in Hudson, N.Y.

"I've known Jesse and Barbara since then," Kenny said.

The plays were written over a period of nine years. The earliest of the quartet, "Rabbi Franklin's Model T," was written in 2004 and the most recent, "Travis' Boy," was penned in 2013.

"I never thought of them as one thing," Jesse said.

The four plays — "General Washington's Property" and "Mrs. Butler Returns" round out the foursome — all follow a similar theme: the complicated relationship between the nation's promise and the reality of the application of equality in America.

Spanning from 1783 to 1920, Jesse's works take real moments in history and infuse them with a theatrical flair.

George Washington's mission to take back runaway slaves from the British army as the latter left New York after the Revolutionary War has a fictional element added to it — one of the slaves was Washington's in Jesse's retelling.

The Alamo is the setting for "Travis' Boy," about a survivor of the battle: Garrison Commander William Barret Travis' slave, Joe. In the play, Joe and Travis' fiancee talk with Travis' estate's executor about the late commander's will.

"Mrs. Butler Returns" shows the audience how Lenox resident Fanny Kemble fought with her husband, Pierce Butler. Kemble, sued for divorce by Butler, is fighting for custody of her daughter — no easy feat for a woman in the nineteenth century.

"She believed so strongly in what she did," said Ecobelli, who plays Kemble.

And in "Rabbi Franklin's Model T," the eponymous rabbi attempts to convince his neighbor, Henry Ford, to retract the anti-Semitic articles in his paper.

The rabbi will be played by the temple's own Rabbi Joshua Breindel.

"He has some acting credits under his belt," said Barbara.

Jesse said that the reading was not specifically in reaction to the weekend's violent white supremacy rallies and the counter-protests in Charlottesville, Va., and had been planned in advance.

Rather, the general political climate spurred the couple to combine four of Jesse's works into one staged reading performance.

The post-performance discussion will feature the Waldingers and the casts of the readings as well as a number of local civil rights luminaries and faith leaders.

Breindel will be joined by Knesset Israel's Rabbi David Weiner, the Rev. Sheila Sholes Ross of Pittsfield's First Baptist Church; Dennis Powell, the president of the Berkshire chapter of the NAACP; and racial justice organization Multicultural BRIDGE founder and Executive Director Gwendolyn Hampton VanSant.

"The discussion is always fascinating," said Joffe.

Reach staff reporter Eoin Higgins at 413-464-4872 or @EoinHiggins_.


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