Daily Press (Sunday)

Virginia Stage nails season opener

Outstandin­g performers, earlier programmin­g illuminate, echo precarity of Jewish existence

- By Page Laws

Note: This review was written and submitted before the start of the recent Israel-Hamas war.

As Tevye the dairyman notes, it is really risky to play the fiddle while perched atop a roof. The title of the great American musical in which he’s the star alludes to Marc Chagall’s painting and the fact that Jews have long had to conduct their religious life and culture under conditions as precarious and nomadic as any people on Earth have had to bear.

So why play fiddle up there, in constant danger of a deadly fall?

Tevye — masterfull­y performed by John Payonk in Virginia Stage Company’s “Fiddler on the Roof ” — answers that with the show’s rousing first number: “Tradition.”

Jewish life has long been balanced between millennia-old religious beliefs and customs that unite the people and the need to grow and change — accepting women, for instance, as fully formed human beings, capable of making their own decisions about, say, marriage partners. Sorry, Yente (the frustrated matchmaker, played by Jacqueline Jones)! Women have rights, too!

So, precarity/change is the theme, and this show’s Tevye is a dream.

Payonk has a booming baritone coupled with operatic finesse and resonance rich enough to raise the roof of Norfolk’s Wells Theatre, especially as stoked by the brand-new sound system (new seats, too). He also has the comic timing of his best Borscht Belt predecesso­rs — a must for carrying on his soliloquie­s with God and impromptu mangled citations from “The Good Book.” He’s a man blessed and cursed in having five daughters (cursed in that he has no dowry funds to marry them off ). But more on his

family and supporting cast later.

The pandemic has made times precarious for theater, but it’s not that risky for the VSC to have chosen what some may consider a chestnut of theater repertory.

Especially with the show being generously backed by the United Jewish Federation of Tidewater and the Simon Family Jewish

Community Center. This first-time producing partnershi­p has also provided top-notch, pre-show lectures by Rabbi Michael Panitz of Temple Israel along with a showing of the film “Fiddler: Miracles of Miracles,” which documents the show’s provenance and even features an interview with this production’s director, Gary John La Rosa — a friend of “Fiddler” lyricist Sheldon Harnick, who died in June. Here La Rosa duplicates the original choreograp­hy of Jerome Robbins, with some success. (He has even directed Chaim Topol — the famous Tevye of Norman Jewison’s 1971 film and many subsequent stage incarnatio­ns — in a celebratio­n of the 50th anniversar­y of the 1964 Broadway version.)

The original source of “Fiddler” is a considerab­ly darker collection of short stories, written about 1894 and later, about Tevye the milkman by Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem. They’re set around 1905 during pogroms in czarist Russia. In 1906 he fled Ukraine — then a region of Russia called the Pale of Settlement, in which Jews were allowed to live — and eventually settled in New York. (As for his name, it’s a pen name, the greeting “Peace be with you”; he was born Solomon Naumovich Rabinovich.)

Some, including Panitz, have called the musical her husband, artist and illustrato­r Charly Palmer — a tribute anthology of work by contempora­ry artists and writers punctuated with selections from the original magazine. “The New Brownies’ Book: A Love Letter to Black Families,” was published Tuesday by Chronicle Books.

In late August, Brown and Palmer visited the New York Public Library to see, in the “Polonsky Exhibition of The New York Public Library’s Treasures,” a copy of the May 1920 Brownies’ Book from the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. On its cover, “Winding the May Pole,” seven young brownskinn­ed girls in fashionabl­e Kate Greenaway-style dresses daintily execute a springtime dance.

Over lunch after her visit to the library, Brown said the genesis of “The New Brownies’ Book” was her sense that the original magazine and its context offered parallels with the present and inspiratio­n for how to confront a corrosive turning back of the national discourse,

“Sholem Aleichem Lite,” referring to its assimilati­onism and relatively benign conclusion: quiet reconcilia­tion between Tevye and his daughter Chava (Amelia Burkley) who has married outside the faith. This is prompted, of course, by the forced scattering of the entire community of the shtetl Anatevka. Panitz’s overall evaluation of the show is, however, far more measured, especially in his scholarly article “Fiddler on a New Roof,” inspired in part by the 2018 Yiddish-language staging with Joel Grey: “Fidler afn Dakh,” which Panitz calls “more frankly ‘Jewish’” in tone.

Most critics agree that “Fiddler” is a canonical, great American musical that belongs in the worldwide repertory. So it’s really a matter of how good a whether in the banning of books for or about Black children, the removal of Black history from school curriculum­s or an ongoing news scroll of police brutality and racially motivated violence.

“I had just witnessed George Floyd being murdered on TV, and Breonna Taylor, and, and, and,” she said. “I thought, ‘If I’m feeling this level of despair because of this, what must a Black child feel?’”

“‘The New Brownies’ Book,’” said journalist and author Damon Young, a contributo­r, “is vital and critical” as a corrective and retort to the ongoing proscripti­on of Black history and culture in library and school systems nationwide.

Brown said, “I realized that a new version of ‘The Brownies’ Book’ could be, like Du Bois’, an opportunit­y to say to Black children, ‘We love you, we have faith in you,’ to come not from a place of deficit and despair but of joy, love, unity and care.”

Du Bois announced The Brownies’ Book in the October 1919 issue of The Crisis, just months after the so-called Red Summer,

Tevye and supporting cast can be assembled.

In this case, Payonk nails Tevye, and his supporting cast supports him, using the mix upon which many regional theaters rely — namely, imported Actors Equity members (five here), most often for the leads, and more local community actors for the ranks. Tevye’s special imaginary friend, the Fiddler, is played, for example, by Velkassem Agguini, a violinist at the Governor’s School for the Arts, who does some of his own fiddling for the whirling, cavorting, nonspeakin­g role. Golde, Tevye’s not-so-long-suffering wife, is Eva DeVirgilis. She maintains her kosher home with panache, modeling the proper wife and mother for all she’s worth. Tzeitel (Ally Dods), the eldest daughter, when Black troops, expecting to return from World War I to heroes’ welcomes, were met once again with bigotry and the legalized segregatio­n of Jim Crow. Deadly race riots broke out from Washington, D.C., to Elaine, Arkansas, and the number of lynchings in the U.S. rose exponentia­lly.

These atrocities were graphicall­y chronicled in The Crisis. The Brownies’ Book wanted to shield its young readership from such content without denying either the realities of racism at home or the inequities and struggles across a globe where colonialis­m was being questioned. Proper parenting, it also suggested, was a civil rights pursuit.

Also urgent, Du Bois and Fauset believed, was the emotional well-being of their young readers. If Black children saw themselves represente­d at all in the prevailing culture of the 1920s, it was in degrading caricature­s in advertisin­g and on consumer packaging, in magazines, newspapers and children’s literature itself.

In its founding, The Brownies’ Book had a specific bone to pick with St. Nicholas Magazine, has inherited her mother’s gumption and her father’s almost Socratic nature.

Tzeitel rejects the matchmaker’s choice of Lazar Wolf (Scott Wichmann), the wealthy (by village standards) butcher who’s none too pleased by it. Tzeitel chooses, instead, Motel the tailor (Greg Dragas), dirt poor but rock solid in a crisis. Daughter No. 2, Hodel (Mia Bergstrom), is the family intellectu­al who chooses another thinker to wed. He’s Perchik, the student revolution­ary, well rendered by Nathan Matthew Jacques. It is he who helps the hidebound citizens of Anatevka begin to see that change is coming, and fast. The third daughter, Chava (Burkley), breaks even more definitive­ly with her family and people when she chooses to love a Russian gentile the country’s dominant children’s periodical, which even in its popular “Brownies” series — about a global mix of naughty, tannish-colored elves — excluded any of African descent, restrictin­g fairyland itself.

The Brownies’ Book set out to counter “these gross stereotype­s,” said Farah Jasmine Griffin, a professor of literature and African American studies at Columbia University,

“by taking seriously the shaping of Black children’s sense of identity and selfworth.”

The magazine aimed to instill self-respect, self-assurance and a finely tuned social conscience in the next generation, a key to Black progress that would otherwise be thwarted by the forces ranged against it. A moral to every story, it expounded on history that put at the foreground Black icons and their achievemen­ts. A regular section written by Du Bois, “As the Crow Flies,” touched on headline events around the world.

“Our little girl is dark brown,” wrote Bella Seymour of New York

City in a letter that ran in a section called “The Grownups

named Fyedka (Timothy Wright).

Other familiar local actors — Matt Friedman as Mordcha the innkeeper, John K. Cauthen as the rabbi, Scott Rollins as the constable — plus a lively handful of child actors (Gavin and Jasper Gayer, Ellie Madelyn Ruffing and Stormie Treviño) round out some of the large cast.

The set and costumes, while solid, look very much like the dozens of touring versions constantly moving across stages worldwide. There are wigs and male facial hair galore, most seemingly in accordance with Jewish custom of the time but some that looked (intentiona­lly?) comical.

Though not directly emphasized in this production, it pays to remember that real Anatevkas in Ukraine may be suffering

Corner,” applauding the launch of The Brownies’ Book, “and we want her to be proud of her color and to know that it isn’t the kind of skin people have that makes them great.”

Like a run-up to the glamorous and genteel

Jazz Age vignettes that photograph­er James

Van Der Zee captured of upper-crust Harlem, The Brownies’ Book depicted, in pictures and in prose, middle-class and aspiration­al working-class Black life as it thrived and strived for equality despite the obstacles in its way.

Joy Bivins, director of the Schomburg, said of her first encounter with the magazine, “the word I would use is ‘delight.’”

“It was just wonderful to see the pictures, the Black Boy Scout troop, the young girls of a debate team, the photograph­s from baby contests,” Bivins said. “Despite the awareness of the hardships of segregatio­n, of discrimina­tion, it was still kids just being kids.”

Jelani Cobb, a writer for The New Yorker and the dean of Columbia Journalism School, sees a direct link between the magazine and Du Bois’ famous

bombardmen­t as we watch this show or read this newspaper account. Awareness of “Fiddler’s” relevance to the war in Ukraine seems to have somewhat diminished since the last touring production I saw, at the Ferguson in Newport News in March 2022; the cast dedicated it to the people of Ukraine.

But this should not detract from the accomplish­ment of the two Jewish organizati­ons and Virginia Stage Company in putting on a fine “Fiddler,” starring an admirable Tevye. For that accomplish­ment in still-precarious times, they deserve a heartfelt “Mazel tov!” formulatio­n from 1903, in “The Souls of Black Folk,” of “a double consciousn­ess.”

“The Brownies’ Book is of a piece with Du Bois’ profound concern with the idea of how Black people saw themselves while also looking at themselves through the eyes of people who hated them,” Cobb said. “There’s who we are to the larger white world and who we are inwardly. The Brownies’ Book was countering the propaganda of white supremacy in both directions. It’s amazing how prescient it was.”

The closing announceme­nt for The Brownies’ Book ran in the issue of December 1921. It would be five decades before another periodical for Black children appeared, Ebony Jr! magazine, launched in 1973 by Johnson Publishing and folded in 1985.

“We are sorry,” Du Bois wrote in his farewell, “much sorrier than any of you, for it has all been such fun. After all — who knows — perhaps we shall meet again.” A full-page illustrati­on by Hilda Rue Wilkinson, of a crestfalle­n child, was called simply, “GoodBye.”

 ?? SAMUEL FLINT ?? Amelia Burkley as Chava, from left, Ally Dods as Tzeitel and Mia Bergstrom as Hodel in Virginia Stage Company’s production of“Fiddler on the Roof.” It runs through Oct. 29 at Norfolk’s Wells Theatre.
SAMUEL FLINT Amelia Burkley as Chava, from left, Ally Dods as Tzeitel and Mia Bergstrom as Hodel in Virginia Stage Company’s production of“Fiddler on the Roof.” It runs through Oct. 29 at Norfolk’s Wells Theatre.
 ?? ?? John Payonk as Tevye is supported by local adult and child actors as well as visiting Actors Equity members.
John Payonk as Tevye is supported by local adult and child actors as well as visiting Actors Equity members.
 ?? SAMUEL FLINT PHOTOS ?? From the Virginia Stage production of“Fiddler on the Roof.”
SAMUEL FLINT PHOTOS From the Virginia Stage production of“Fiddler on the Roof.”

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