Oscar Handlin said it all in the evocative title to his Pulitzer Prize-winning 1951 book on American history, “The Uprooted.” Few experiences are as wrenching and difficult, and yet filled with hope and expectation, as relocating from one part of the world to another. For Canadian playwright Hannah Moscovitch, the contemporary debates on immigration to North America resonate with her own experience as the great-grandchild of two Romanian Jewish immigrants to Nova Scotia who fell in love and made their way to Montreal to create a new life.
“Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story” is a musical by Moscovitch, her husband, Christian Barry, and folk musician Ben Caplan. When it ran last year at Canada’s National Arts Centre, critic Lynn Saxberg of the Ottawa Citizen called it an “extraordinary piece of theatre” that tells an “often dark tale with an engaging combination of music, dance and a playful sense of humor.” A success at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival, the show opens a six-week run in New York this week.
Directed by Barry, “Old Stock” stars Caplan, a bespectacled, long-bearded folk musician who wrote the songs for the show. Violinist Mary Fay Coady and woodwind player Chris Weatherstone join him to play music as well as Moscovitch’s ancestors Chaya and Chaim, who are both coping with trauma; she has lost her husband to typhus and his family has been murdered in a pogrom. They meet in a line to see the doctor after they get off the boat, and the sparks begin to fly. But they will have to undergo much more upheaval before they can rebuild their lives in a new land. Graham Scott plays accordion and Jamie Kronick is on keyboard and drums.
Moscovitch is best known for “The Russian Play,” a short work about a flower-shop girl who falls in love with a gravedigger. Her other plays include “USSR,” about a woman who emigrates from Russia to Canada, and “Mexico City,” about a young couple that encounters relationship troubles while traveling to Mexico in 1960.
In an interview, Moscovitch told The Jewish Week that she was inspired to write the play three years ago after finding voluminous records of her family at the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 in Halifax. As iconic as Ellis Island is to the descendants of those who immigrated to America a century ago, Pier 21 is equally symbolic to those who came to Canada during the steamship era. While her great-grandparents arrived in 1908, two decades before Pier 21 opened (its precursor was called Pier 2), the archive at Pier 21 tracked Canadian immigrants from the time of their arrival in Halifax through annual census data on when they married and where they settled, and through the records of their children. “I even found documents relating to the bar mitzvahs of their sons,” she said.
Meanwhile, the headlines were full of heart-rending stories of the refugee crisis in Syria after the body of 2-year old Alan Kurdi, whose family had reportedly been trying to get to Canada, had washed up on a beach in Turkey. The ensuing political debate helped spark a change to Canadian immigration policy. The new, liberal prime minister, Justin Trudeau, ultimately welcomed 25,000 Syrian refugees into Canada. But the opening of Canadian borders also caused a conservative backlash. Tory leader Stephen Harper suggested that “old stock Canadians” were more deserving of health benefits than immigrants and refugees.
Moscovitch, who took her title from the controversy over the “old stock” comment, found a “weird, beautiful fit” between the situation for immigrants nowadays and her great-grandparents’ lives. Now staying in Prospect Park, Brooklyn, for the run of the play, she finds it refreshing to see signs that say “Refugees Welcome,” despite what she knows to be “our fear of the unknown and of strangers.” One of the musical’s lyrics comes from a famous statement made by a 1939 Canadian immigration official who replied, caustically, “None is too many,” to the question of how many Jews the government should admit after the war.
In order to direct the play, Barry, who is not Jewish, said he needed “first to jam with Caplan about his Jewish heritage” and then to sort out his own feelings about the Jewish religion. He and Moscovitch had been together for about a decade when their son, Elijah, was born, and they had to decide whether or not to circumcise him. “Even though I’ve directed a number of Jewish plays,” he said, “it’s different when you have a progressive Jewish wife and her rabbi, who say that circumcision is not necessary in order to be Jewish. And I had an instinct not to cause pain to my son.” (In the end, they decided to forego the ritual.)
“Old Stock,” Barry said, is about a situation “not unlike the Islamophobia of today” that prevents so many people from having a safe place to live and raise their families. The characters in the play, he noted, have suffered a lot before even meeting one another. “There’s a lot of darkness in the psyches of these characters,” he pointed out. “It’s not a tragedy, but it does show what violence and terror have brought into their lives.”
Caplan grew up in Hamilton, Ontario, where his family attended a Conservative synagogue. He is known throughout Canada for his high-energy storytelling and his virtuosic performances of a riotous mélange of klezmer, folk and rock music. His band, The Casual Smokers, has released two albums, “In the Time of the Great Remembering” and “Birds With Broken Wings.” A publicist has called him “rugged, raspy and roaring with charisma,” his “voice to song as smoke is to bourbon.” His music has been compared to that of Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen.
In an interview, Caplan recalled that he “heard a lot of cantorial music growing up, and songs around the Shabbat dinner table, but never really thought about it as music. I was listening mostly to the Grateful Dead and Bob Dylan.” On a trip to Antwerp, he heard a busking brass band perform in front of a cathedral and was hooked on what he called “Romanian/klezmer infused melodies.” Wearing a prayer shawl as he claps his hand and dances around the stage, he functions as a kind of Tevye-like narrator cum Emcee from “Cabaret,” the leader of a group of troubadours who emerge out of an enormous shipping container to begin the show.
The music, he said, “combines humor, darkness and Bulgar rhythms.” It derives from “ripping through traditionally arranged klezmer tunes,” often with a “jagged saxophone wail. It uses a lot of intervals, a palette of sounds that feels like a high energy concert blended with this narrative.” Setting the tone for the entire show, as well as summing up the creators’ sympathy for immigrants, is its high-octane opening song, “Traveler’s Curse,” sung to a conscience-less immigration official. “You make some markings and stamp and seal my fate. … All of my pity upon you; my life can only get better. Yours is bound to be worse.”
“Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story” begins performances on Thursday, March 8 and runs through Sunday, April 22 at 59E59 Theaters (59 E. 59th St., between Park and Madison). The opening performance is on Sunday, March 18 at 2 p.m. The shows runs Tuesday through Saturday 7 p.m. and Saturday and Sundays at 2 p.m. (There is no performance on the first night of Passover, Friday, March 30.) For tickets, $25-$70, call Ticket Central at 212-279-4200 or visit 59e59.org.