‘The Religion Of Art’ On The Lower East Side
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‘The Religion Of Art’ On The Lower East Side

Ted Merwin’s column appears monthly. He writes about theater for the paper and is the author of the award-winning “Pastrami on Rye,” a history of the Jewish deli.

With the passing earlier this month of Judith Malina, the co-founder of the Living Theatre, the Lower East Side lost one of its true artistic pioneers. But while Malina was associated with the heyday of the counterculture in the 1960s, the neighborhood has continued to support a vibrant experimental theater scene until the present day, and to nurture the careers of a plethora of Jewish artists.

In “Because You Are Good,” a short one-woman play by Jody Christopherson, the actress plays Clove Galilee, the daughter of Lee Breuer and Ruth Maleczech, whose Lower East Side theater collective, Mabou Mines, founded in 1970, inspired a new generation of artists and performers.

Christopherson, who writes about theater for the Huffington Post and other publications, conducted an interview with Maleczech in January of 2013, less than a year before the actress died. “I learned that Clove had appeared in her parents’ productions from the age of 5,” the playwright said. “I decided to write a play about one woman’s journey to find her artistic voice.” The title, she explained, came from a lesson that she learned from Galilee, that “you often have to let your work be bad for a really long time before it can be good.”

Reached by phone at her home in Northern California, where she does cultural programming for the City of San Francisco, Galilee talked about living on the Lower East Side in the 1970s, at a time when Jews, Poles, Ukrainians and other denizens of the area hung out in bars, performance spaces and hair salons. “It was the cheapest part of downtown,” she recalled. “It was grittier, more immigrant and more low-brow than Soho. The drug dealers on my block would tell me that I was late coming home from school. During the summer, I could sit on my stoop all day and talk to all the passersby.”

While Galilee’s father is Jewish — her paternal grandfather, Joseph, who was an architect, designed the wooden escalators at Macy’s — her mother was Catholic. Indeed, one of the monologues in the play is about Galilee’s longing for a white communion dress like the ones that she saw in shop windows, and which she wore in a 1973 Mabou Mines play called “The Saint and the Football Player.”

But the “fundamentalist religion” in which Galilee grew up was not a monotheistic one — it was, she said, the “religion of art.” She learned to enter a theater “as if it were a holy space,” she recalled, “a place to transform yourself and to transform the audience.”

“Because You Are Good” is part of a series of a dozen East Side Stories that are running through Sunday, May 3 at the Metropolitan Playhouse, 220 E. Fourth St. The performance schedule varies; for information and tickets, $20.99, call (800) 838-3006 or visit metropolitanplayhouse.org.

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