In the Air
My short list of reasons for dancing in the street includes Jesse Helms falling into a snake pit, Pat Buchanan falling on top of Helms in said pit, and anything written or performed by Sara Felder, a juggler who writes and a writer who juggles. I spoke to Felder recently, on the occasion of a new production of her 1992 play, The Lady Upstairs (at Theatre Rhinoceros, 861-5079, from Jan. 11 through Feb. 10). It's about God, atomic bombs, and two Jewish lesbians who fall in love. “I was worried that the stuff about nuclear weapons was dated,” Felder tells me, “until the French started blowing up atolls in the South Pacific. That, and the fact that Joseph Rothblatt was recently awarded the Nobel Prize. Rothblatt, a Holocaust survivor, escaped to the U.S. to work on the Manhattan Project.” When Hitler was defeated, Rothblatt left the project, because he could no longer justify the creation of so terrible a weapon. Felder is fascinated by the ethics of nuclear research. “Why did they have to finish the bomb?” Felder asks. “They said that not finishing was 'never in the air,' but clearly it was, since Rothblatt was able to leave.” But The Lady Upstairs is about more than fission; it's about fusion, too, as two politically disparate women find love in the most unlikely place. “It's important to me that it's really good theater. I want to write about ideas, sure, but I want the audience to be entertained.”
This production is a new experience for Felder, since she is much less involved with the day-to-day rehearsals. “It's been wonderful and terrifying,” Felder admits, “just to be the playwright. … That also means letting go, letting the director and the designers and the actors do their work. Collaboration is what I love about working in theater, right up until I see an actor make an interpretive choice that's different from mine. Then I have to work on a whole Zen thing, and trust the other artists.”
Felder's personal politics are an important part of her work. She would like to write about issues that don't necessarily include lesbian themes, but as long as “we are oppressed, then I have an obligation to put us onstage. Besides, when we put strong gay and lesbian characters on the stage, that's revolutionary.” She realizes that many observant Jews object to her lesbianism, but Felder insists on the right, indeed the necessity, of being both a Jew and a lesbian, and of reflecting both aspects in her work. Felder has performed June Bride (a solo piece about her traditional Jewish lesbian wedding) all over the country, from a Yiddish cultural celebration in the Catskills to Anchorage, Alaska, “where I was their ethnic experience for the year.” Politics that entertain, entertainment that makes the audience think — that's Sara Felder.
By Deborah Peifer