The confluence between news and arts has surprised Artistic Director Carole Kleinberg.
| 3:00 p.m. October 9, 2023
Arts + Culture
A “Break Fast” for Yom Kippur, the holiest of Jewish holidays, provided a welcome opportunity to literally break bread (homemade Mandel bread, to be exact) with Sarasota Jewish Theater Artistic Director Carole Kleinberg.
Full disclosure: There were also bagels and lox, mini latkes with sour cream and applesauce, babka and so much more brunch-like Jewish food that I might have put on a pound or two during the evening.
When I asked Kleinberg what she’d been up to lately, as you do at these kinds of gatherings, she told me how she’s three years into her current gig. A former theater professor in the Chicago area, Kleinberg previously served as director of education and outreach for the Asolo Repertory Theatre, among other arts positions she's held in Sarasota.
Back in 2017, Kleinberg was prompted to start the Sarasota Jewish Theatre along with some friends after watching news coverage of a deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. She said she was so troubled by the antisemitism she was witnessing on TV that she had to act, literally.
“I thought, ‘We need to create a strong, positive voice in the arts for the Jewish community. We need to start a Jewish theater,’” said Kleinberg, whose 50-year-plus career includes director, educator and administrator.
She didn't waste any time. A week after Charlottesville, Kleinberg was sitting in her living room, brainstorming with some of the area’s prominent theater professionals. The group included Howard Millman, former producing artistic director of the Asolo Rep, Broadway and Asolo actress and director Carolyn Michel, and many others – most of whom still devote time and energy to the troupe they helped found.
During its early days, the Sarasota Jewish Theatre faced considerable headwinds as it, and other live entertainment venues, grappled with the fallout from the Covid lockdown. “We did it on Zoom – we presented three well-attended, successful plays,” said Kleinberg.
Since its inception, there's been an eerie confluence between some of the material the theater presents on stage and troubling current events.
Take the first show the fledgling theater staged (on Zoom) during its 2020-21 inaugural season: "Cherry Docs” was a 25-year-old play by David Gow named after the shoes worn by many white supremacists. It featured a jailed white supremacist who was being defended by a Jewish public attorney.
It’s obvious that the show was chosen as an intentional reference to the Charlottesville rally. But no one could have planned for what transpired next. Although the play called for a young protagonist, Kleinberg instead cast a 45-year-old man in the neo-Nazi role. “I didn’t know a young person who could carry the role,” Kleinberg said, explaining her decision.
Her casting choice seemed prescient when during the run of "Cherry Docs," extremist and conspiracy groups stormed the Senate on Jan. 6, 2021. The older cast member “looked like all those guys who invaded the Capitol building. It gave the play a completely different layer of meaning,” Kleinberg said. “The playwright, when he saw it, said, ‘I’m going back to rewrite the play,’ because it (the older character) made it so current,” she added.
It also confirmed that the Sarasota Jewish Theatre was hitting its marks. It was succeeding in addressing contemporary issues while celebrating Jewish culture, literature, values and history.
More formally, the theater's mission is to “bring to life plays and programs which express the uniqueness and universality of Jewish heritage and cultural life. We believe that a thriving Jewish theatre which reflects Jewish values, ideals, and literature in a positive way is essential at this point in time.”
For 2023-24 season, “The Immigrant" is the production that Kleinberg feels most closely mirrors today’s news. Written in 1985 about the journey of newly arrived Jews who are being shipped off to Texas in the early 1900s, it echoes the way modern-day governors in Florida and Texas have rounded up current-day migrants and transported them out of state. “The parallel is stunning to me,” she said of the play, which will run from May 1-12, 2024.
Despite its haunting subject matter, “The Immigrant” is a heartwarming story of humanity’s triumph over fear, Kleinberg noted. That juxtaposition of the serious and the humorous, the heartbreaking and the heartwarming is also part of the raison d’etre of Sarasota Jewish Theatre.
Also waiting in the wings is "Fully Committed," a restaurant romp starring Kraig Swartz as an unemployed actor juggling the phones at Manhattan's most popular restaurant. Swartz portrays 40 different characters in the play, which runs from Jan. 31 to Feb. 4. Move over, Anna Deveare Smith!
The final production of the season, "Better Late," brings together an emotional "throuple," as a wife who has been married for 20 years asks her spouse if they can take in her ex-husband as he recuperates from an illness. It runs from March 13-21.
The season opens Nov. 11 with "Bashert: Some Things Are Meant To Be," a one-woman musical written by and starring Lynne Bernfield.
At its core, Sarasota Jewish Theatre, which stages its performances at The Players Centre in The Crossings at Siesta Key, is more than just a place for the Jewish community to gather. It’s a space for everyone who loves the arts, values open-mindedness and appreciates nuanced explorations of identity, family and self. As its motto proclaims, "You don’t have to be Jewish to love Jewish theater."
In an interview a couple of days after the Break Fast, Kleinberg spoke of how moved she was by a Yom Kippur sermon she listened to in Sarasota that was streamed from New York’s Park Avenue Synagogue. The rabbi, she explained, spoke of how, while our fate is dictated by God, our destiny is a matter of choice.
Kleinberg believes that the message applies to her personally. But it also speaks to her decision, back in 2017, to do something about the state of the world by forming the Sarasota Jewish Theatre. “We are presented with situations, and we have a choice in how to respond to them,” she said. And that’s a powerful thing.