‘Crossing the Broken Bridge’

‘Crossing the Broken Bridge’

Summit synagogues to host reading of play on Black-Jewish stereotypes and history

John O’Neal and Naomi Newman
John O’Neal and Naomi Newman

“Can you hear me?”

That’s the refrain in the opening scene of “Crossing the Broken Bridge,” a two-person play exploring Black and Jewish history, narratives, and stereotypes.

The play first was staged in 1991 as a collaboration of two theater companies, San Francisco’s A Traveling Jewish Theater and the New Orleans-based Junebug Productions, an outgrowth of the civil rights movement. As originally performed — and as recorded in a 1994 performance that recently was uploaded to YouTube — it featured the two co-authors, Naomi Newman of Traveling Jewish Theater and John O’Neal of Junebug.

On Sunday, three Summit synagogues — Temple Sinai, Congregation Ohr Shalom-SJCC, and Congregation Beth Hatikvah — are sponsoring a staged reading of portions of the play on Zoom as part of the town’s commemoration of Martin Luther King Day.

In the play, “Can you hear me?” starts as a question of acoustics — a question familiar to all of us who have been interacting through awkward Zoom connections this year. But then “they go from the acoustics to talking in ways that are stereotypical — stereotypically Black ways of talking and stereotypically Jewish ways of talking,” Rabbi Hannah Orden said. Rabbi Orden leads Congregation Beth Hatikvah, Summit’s Reconstructionist congregation.

From there, the Black actor and the white Jewish actress go on to play themselves — two theatrical collaborators — and then a variety of characters in Black history, Jewish history, and the shared history of the two groups.

“In the process, they bring up some of the misunderstandings between the two communities,” Rabbi Orden said. “They address some of the strains and hurts and anger.”

“It’s a timeless piece meant to speak a message,” Karen Sommers Cooper of Morristown said. Ms. Cooper, a member of Beth Hatikvah, is directing the Sunday performance. “It’s going to be about 20 minutes,” she said. “Then we’re going to have a question-and-answer session. There will be a panel, with a rabbi and a pastor and the two actors.

“I love that this specific event is a reach-out to the larger community and a chance to have a conversation with that community,” she continued. “It’s not just sitting around within our comfortable safe circle to talk about Jewish and Black relationships. I love that we’re bringing everyone into the room. I’ve picked parts of the show that are challenging, and a little less of the typical images you would conjure up when you talk about Black-Jewish relationships.”

The staged reading comes as part of a MLK weekend whose traditional calendar has been upended by covid. For the last few years, the three synagogues have shown a film in late afternoon on the holiday, followed by a panel discussion. Then they would serve pizza and head over to the Fountain Baptist Church for an evening service.

“This year we decided to do it on Sunday instead,” Rabbi Orden said. “With everything on Zoom, we felt it would be too much. People can’t sit that long. We didn’t want to detract from the service in the evening, so we decided to do it at a different day and time.”

The three synagogues are continuing their tradition of a joint Friday night service for the MLK weekend. The service, on Zoom, will include all three congregations’ choirs and a presentation by Dr. Betty Livingston Adams, the author of “Black Christian Women’s Activism: Seeking Social Justice in a Northern Suburb.” Dr. Adams lives in Summit; her book tells the story of Violet Johnson, a Black woman who moved to Summit in 1897 and within a year founded the Baptist Fountain Church.

Rabbi Orden also is helping to organize a car procession on Monday. “It’s just a way to come together as a community even though we can’t really be inside in person,” she said. “Just seeing each other in the cars, seeing a long row of cars, it makes a difference. To know that we’re all in this together, that there are a lot of people who are concerned and want things to change.”

Her synagogue has a very close relationship with Fountain Baptist, she added. The two congregations have run liberation Passover seders together. And their joint Fountain of Hope Storytelling project brings the two communities together to tell stories about their members’ lives.

“It’s all been wonderful,” Rabbi Orden said. “I do think there are some underlying tensions that we don’t talk about very often. I think this play brings out some things that it’s just good to have out in the open. None of us are immune to internalizing biases and stereotypes about each other.

“We all need opportunities to examine our implicit biases and internalized racism and anti-Semitism. Theater is a great vehicle that allows us to connect with the struggles and feelings of the characters in ways that may have more impact than reading theoretical and historical articles and books. Our hope is that presenting excerpts from ‘Crossing the Broken Bridge’ will lead to honest and open conversation and deeper understanding.” 

In other words: “Can you hear me?”

What: MLK Shabbat in Harmony featuring Dr. Betty Livingston Adams

When: Friday, January 15, 7:30 p.m.

Where: Zoom link available at summitjcc.org

What: “Crossing the Broken Bridge”: Exploring Black-Jewish Relations

When: Sunday, January 17, 7:30 p.m.

Where: On Zoom at https://us02web.zoom.us/j/9082738130?pwd=U1prQjFKb09rck9sbXhtRk1kb2FPZz09

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