Josephine Ross ’21 and three other Swatties are involved in a new play, “Behold Her,” at the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia. The production, which sends the audience on a whirlwind tour of Jewish female history, began on Sept. 7th and runs until the 23rd.
“Tonight’s performance is vaudeville-style hodgepodge on the history of Jewish women and beauty in no particular chronological order and with very little regard for history, for that matter,” deadpanned Marcia Saunders, one of the play’s two main actors, in the opening scene. “It runs approximately 5,778 years since the dawn of Judaism with no intermission. There’s a chamber pot under your seat.”
In that scene, Saunders portrays Fanny Brice, a twentieth century Jewish actress and comedian — but two scenes later, she plays Judith, a Jewish biblical hero, to raucous effect. Judith and Esther, another hero played by Michaela Shuchman ’16, joke about their prowess fighting evil men, and their battle of wits ends in a brilliant dialogue:
JUDITH: …I should have a whole religion named after me.
ESTHER: Many Jewish women feel that way every day. And why is that?
JUDITH: Not — Moses-splaining…
ESTHER: He who holds the pen writes history.
JUDITH: I can fix that.
And “Behold Her” does exactly that, with the help of many talented Swatties.
First among them is Shuchman, who graduated with Highest Honors in Theater. She produces “Behold Her” and is one of the principal actors along with Saunders. The two switch characters each scene to portray a vast array of Jewish women, with expert accompaniment on violin, voice, and more from musician Charlotte Morris.
Shuchman coincidentally met Arden Kass, the playwright, while at a theater, and the idea for the play came about as they talked about their experiences as Jewish women in the arts.
A similar fortune and generosity of spirit led to Ross’s involvement in the production. Ross, a prospective honors theater major and special major in English and education, is heavily involved in theater on campus. Last spring, she got in touch with Shuchman, and they met for a couple of hours, talking about their respective experiences with theater inside and outside of Swarthmore.
“And she was like, ‘Oh my god, I need a small role filled for this show, would it be of interest for you?’” Ross recalled.
Ross agreed, and in August she began rehearsing for “Behold Her.” Ross has a small but important role, playing a dresser at Loehmann’s department store. She also plays Lilith, who, according to Jewish folklore, was Adam’s first wife — before Eve — and joins Shuchman and Morris in a couple of songs. In one of those, “Lilith’s Lament,” the three portray Lilith as a woman who wanted equality and ironically call her “the first psychotic Jewish ex-wife.”
“It worked really well because a lot of Swatties were involved with the show, more than I had anticipated,” Ross said. “Swatties in general were one of the main reasons I felt encouraged to join the piece.”
Those Swatties also include Lila Swanson, the costumer designer and an Assistant Professor of Set Design and Costume Design, and Yoshi Nomura, the set and lighting designer, who graduated from Haverford in 2018 with a theater major at Swarthmore.
But not everything was easy for Ross, who questioned how she fit into a production centered around Jewish culture.
“I am not Jewish, and I made that very clear to Shuchman and the director before I began,” said Ross. “I wanted to let them know: ‘I would love to join this project, I’m honored that you’ve even asked me, but I don’t know if I should be in this piece.’ ”
Shuchman and the director, Tori Mittelman, said that if she felt comfortable, they would be glad to have her, and Ross felt “extremely comfortable” after reading the script, because she related to the play’s themes of womanhood and beauty.
“I think theater’s an education process,” said Ross. “Throughout this rehearsal and production process, I’ve learned more about Jewish identity and culture than I thought I could’ve, while also learning more about my own experiences as an American woman.”
The play also resonated with Jewish audience members. Rook Mogavero ’20 (they/them/theirs) was delighted by the production.
“I did not necessarily feel myself reflected in this show, but I felt my mother reflected in it so much,” they said.
Then Mogavero put on a heavy Jewish accent: “It’s a very ‘You should call your mother’ kind of show.”
Ross herself had a lot of fun but also learned valuable lessons from her experience.
“Being a woman in theater is difficult sometimes, especially when that woman is in a position of power, because sometimes they’re not given the attention or respect that they need in order to do their job,” said Ross. “I was given the opportunity to learn from six different wonderfully creative, talented, intelligent women how to act in a leadership role while also collaborating, being respectful, and just having fun.”
Ross will take other lessons from “Behold Her” this semester as she directs “Love Letters” here at Swarthmore for Drama Board, a group she is also coordinating.
“It’s really fun because I haven’t had a lot of experiences working with people my own age; usually I’m working with older directors in the professional world,” said Ross. “But I think it’s really important, no matter what the age, to understand that typically in theater there are power dynamics, but those do not need to occur.”
“Behold Her,” for one, clearly disrupts those dynamics — and does so with joy and heart. For more information about the play or to book tickets for this weekend’s performances, visit https://fringearts.com/event/behold-her-15/.