Image courtesy ISJL

Mark Twain, A Biblical Drama, And a Southern Synagogue

A special production recently took place in Natchez, Mississippi

In support of the Temple B’nai Israel Restoration and Preservation Fund, the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life (ISJL) produced a staged reading of Mark Twain’s “The Diaries of Adam and Eve” in the sanctuary of Temple B’nai Israel in Natchez, Mississippi. Part of an ongoing project to preserve the building and transform it into a community gathering space, museum, and event venue, the production received rave reviews. Nora Katz, ISJL Director of Heritage and Interpretation, directed the production, and Rachel Glazer, ISJL Community Engagement Fellow, starred as Eve.

So… what was it really like, producing a new spin on an old play (about an even older story!) in a historic synagogue preparing for its own “next act”?

NORA: Working on this project was an absolute dream. I have a background in non-traditional performance, and specifically performance in historic sites, so I have a tendency to imagine every room I walk into in terms of how I could stage a play there. Temple B’nai Israel was no exception. The 40-foot ceilings, stained glass windows, organ, and Italian marble ark make the perfect backdrop for concerts, lectures, and theatrical productions of all kinds.

RACHEL: When you tell a story onstage in a traditional theatre, the bar is a little lower for asking the audience to suspend their disbelief, because they expect to enter the world of the drama with you. When we performed this piece in the Natchez synagogue, we didn’t necessarily want the audience to remove themselves from their surroundings but rather to use the history of the space, the city, and the community to shape their interaction with this otherwise universal story.

NORA: I mentioned my idea of directing a play in the temple when I first visited the building in November 2017. One of the congregants immediately said, “Oh, there’s this adaptation of Mark Twain’s ‘Diaries of Adam and Eve.’ That’s what you have to do.” That night I downloaded a preview of the script, and by the next morning I had fleshed out a proposal for the project. That’s one of my favorite things about theatre – this play transformed so much from the time I was reading it aloud to myself in my living room, and then reading it through with actors, and then performing it in the ISJL conference room, and then bringing it to a historic building, and then sharing it with an audience. There’s a ritual to this process that feels similar to rituals in Judaism.

RACHEL: I found myself thinking about that, too. In a way, we broke the ritual of how the space is traditionally used. Not only were we able to create the Garden of Eden out of some potted plants and a couple of benches, but we reintroduced the Torah’s first family to the congregation of attendees in their own context. This story is pulled from B’reishit, which translates to “In the beginning.” That feels like a fitting frame for this project; the show is over, and the building is anything but new, and yet this process has only just begun.

NORA: This production is really an opportunity to reinvigorate the space. Theatre isn’t necessarily what people might think about when they enter a historic site. But the theatre world and, not surprisingly, my Master’s thesis research, are full of examples of companies doing amazing things in non-traditional spaces – from a one-man play in a rowboat to a huge production in a former military barracks. I’d love to do an original work at Temple B’nai Israel, telling the story of the historic Natchez Jewish community in an immersive, educational way. But that’s getting ahead of our first priority: developing programs and events in diverse disciplines that bring the community into the temple and give them a stake in the building’s future. I’m thrilled that we were able to do that with Mark Twain’s The Diaries of Adam and Eve.

To learn more about the historic synagogue in Natchez, visit the website and get involved with saving this landmark!

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