New York is reborn every day through the collision of cultures, producing new fusions and syntheses. In performance artist Judith Sloan’s new one-woman show, “Yo Miss! Teaching Inside the Cultural Divide,” an intrepid Jewish teacher weaves documentary, poetry, autobiography and music from her searing encounters with immigrant, refugee and incarcerated youths. With music direction by famed klezmer trumpeter Frank London, the show features musicians Adam Hill and MiWi LaLupa performing a smattering of Jewish, Arabic and Chinese songs, along with hip hop and polka.
Beginning in her early 20s, Sloan interviewed Holocaust survivors and elderly Eastern European Jews, partly as a way of memorializing her own paternal grandparents who were murdered by the Nazis. Along with her husband, Warren Lehrer, she moved on in 1999 to interviewing a variety of refugees in Queens; the couple turned those encounters into a performance piece, an exhibition and ultimately a prize-winning book — all called “Crossing the BLVD,” referring to Queens Boulevard, a major thoroughfare in the city’s most multi-ethnic borough.
Sloan has also done a number of one-woman shows, including “A Tattle Tale,” based on the true story of a Mississippi woman who blew the whistle on police brutality, and “Denial of the Fittest,” about a Jewish woman coping with tragedy and loss.
In “Yo Miss,” Sloan “remixes” the stories of newly arrived teen immigrants with whom she has done writing and theater workshops, mostly in the city’s schools. Her subjects, who typically come from war zones or from regions that have experienced natural disasters, have experienced unspeakable horrors. Most have no other outlet to express their pain, confusion and sense of dislocation.
One of the most moving moments in “Yo Miss,” Sloan said, is when she chants the Jewish prayer for the dead, the Kaddish, as the musicians are performing “Soon and Very Soon,” the soaring gospel song, often performed at funerals, about going to see the Lord. The universality of human experience, Sloan suggests, can lead to cross-cultural understanding, empathy and insight.
As activist Anthony Papa, who knows Sloan, wrote last month in the Huffington Post, her latest show is “right on target,” showcasing Sloan’s ability to “seamlessly move from one character to the next, and to weave stories of kids, working in prisons, and crashing into hip hop with her own story that reveals the ripple effects of war and the Holocaust on her family.”
Yet even as she helps others to transcend their own traumas, Sloan noted, she continues to heal herself from her own. As she has refined her skills as an interviewer and writer, Sloan said, she has learned to talk honestly about what it took for her “to get out of certain ways of being haunted but never really having them leave you, just learning to live with them.”
“Yo Miss! Teaching Inside the Cultural Divide” is presented Thursday, Nov. 3 through Saturday, Nov. 5 at 7 p.m. and Sunday, Nov. 6 at 3 p.m. at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, 236 East Third St. between Avenues B and C. For tickets, $20, call the box office at (212) 780-9386.