Lesbian Playwright Reflects on LGBT History in ‘Indecent’

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Palm Beach Dramaworks opens its 2018-19 season with “Indecent,” Paula Vogel’s critically-acclaimed play about a forgotten chapter in LGBT history that literally played out on the stage a century ago.

The drama with music created by Vogel and longtime collaborator Rebecca Taichman, resurrects playwright Sholem Asch and the shocking journey of his groundbreaking 1907 work, “God of Vengeance.”

Even though his play had been performed around the world in both Yiddish and English, Vogel’s work focuses on the firestorm that erupted two weeks after “God of Vengeance” opened on Broadway 17 years later. On March 6, 1923, the cast and producer were indicted for “unlawfully advertising, giving, presenting, and participating in an obscene, indecent, immoral, and impure drama or play.” 

While the indictment was the result of numerous complaints alleging that the play was anti-Semitic, it became clear in the subsequent trial that the prosecutor was most outraged by the depiction of a heartfelt lesbian relationship that led to the first kiss between two women on a Broadway stage.

“I actually first read the play when I was 22 years old,” recalled Vogel in a phone interview. “It was my first year in grad school and one of my professors suggested I read this play and I thought he’s giving me a hint. I found a yellowed, out-of-print copy and I didn’t even leave the library. I read it right there in the stacks.”

“God of Vengeance” is about an Orthodox Jew named Yekel who runs a brothel in the basement of his home. Yekel believes that if he can find a righteous husband for his innocent daughter Rifkele, and has a Torah scroll created as a gift to the couple, he can earn respect and make amends with God. But, he is unaware that Rifkele has fallen in love with Manke, one of his prostitutes. 

Asch’s compassionate, understanding approach to same-sex love particularly inspired Vogel. “Indecent” incorporates some of Asch’s dialogue from “God of Vengeance,” including its most memorable section, a love scene between Rifkele and Manke

“I know [Asch] was heterosexual, but it remains, to this day, the most beautiful love scene I’ve ever encountered. That stayed with me for a long time,” Vogel said.

Although “Indecent” ends in the middle of the twentieth century with Asch’s departure from his adopted homeland, the issues raised in the play reverberate resoundingly in 2018, including the subjugation of women, anti-Semitism, antipathy toward immigrants, assimilation, antagonism toward gays, religious hypocrisy, and the role of art and artists in troubled times.

“The play couldn’t be more timely…the way America is turning its back on immigration and treating immigrants as not being human is happening in the background of this play…I could see us drifting into a divided country and the hate speech today, but this was all happening in the 1920s,” she pointed out.

Vogel paused a moment before adding, “Immigration is an LGBT issue. Censorship is an LGBT issue. We are one step away from seeing all the advances we’ve made eradicated.”

She noted that Jews were not the only population who were persecuted by the fascists almost a century ago in Europe and this country could easily ignore history and head down the same path.

“I always think about a younger audience when I write because I’ve been a teacher. We didn’t invent gayness and lesbianism, this has been a part of the human condition for a long, long time. I was born in 1951, the holocaust was in my bones and now we’re seeing it denied. It’s a historical fact,” Vogel argued. “I want this play to have an impact so that it will be in their bodies, their bones, and they will see a need for participation as citizens, making alliances inside our communities.”

Palm Beach Dramaworks opens its 2018-19 season with Paula Vogel’s “Indecent,” Oct. 19 – Nov. 11, at the Don and Ann Brown Theater, 201 Clematis St. in West Palm Beach. Tickets are $75 at PalmBeachDramaworks.org.


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