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  • "They Find You, Those Sons of Moses":Collective Memory and the Disconnected Jew
  • Ellen Schiff (bio)

In a PMLA article entitled "Racial Memory and Literary History," Stephen Greenblatt describes a riveting keynote address he heard at the 1996 International Shakespeare Association meeting. The speaker was actor, director, and civil rights activist Janet Suzman, who told the story of the remarkable production of Othello she had directed in her native Johannesburg in the mid-1970s. Because violent anti-apartheid riots were raging in Soweto, the theatrical representation of interracial marriage was a daring act bordering on provocation. To get to rehearsals, John Kani, the black playwright-actor cast in the title role, had to make his way through "a nightmarish landscape of oppression and bloodshed and submit to humiliating questions and searches" (Greenblatt 54). Kani would arrive at the theater so paralyzed with rage that he could not unlock his clenched jaw enough to produce the round, plangent "O's" that punctuate Othello's speeches ("O, Iago, the pity of it, Iago"). Suzman's persistent efforts to coach Kani only made him angrier. Finally she realized he needed to find his voice in an antithetical racial experience. Could he summon from his memories the tranquil safety of starry nights in a rural African village? He could. The strategy worked. Kani's accomplishment is all the more striking given that he is an urbanite; he has always lived in Johannesburg. The memories he accessed did not come from personal experience. They came, rather, from what Suzman and Greenblatt call "racial memory."

Greenblatt met Janet Suzman after her talk and told her how moved he had been by her courage and resourcefulness. At the same time, he confessed skepticism about the invocation of racial memories and discomfort with a term indelibly defiled by history. "Did she think," a somewhat vexed Greenblatt asked, "that I could access racial memories somewhere inside of me of the smoky Lithuanian nights in the shtetl near Vilna, the place my grandparents had the wit or good fortune to leave in the 1890s?" "You could," Suzman answered. "If you were an actor … you [End Page 3] would have to" (55). This exchange, and especially Janet Suzman's assertion—"if you were an actor"—intrigued me. Greenblatt cites the episode in his argument about the misuse of racial memory in constructing teleological studies of a national literary history that prioritize the work of the most recent dominant group. He decides Suzman's notion of racial memory is a "fictive construction," belonging entirely to "theatrical performance." I take Greenblatt at his word. I suspect that, distinguished Shakespeare scholar that he is, he might agree that the theater is, by definition, a "fictive construction." Paradoxically, I read what he intended as a dismissal as an enticement to look for other roles that racial memory might serve in the theater. Is finding inspiration in memories that come from one's people rather than from personal experience just an extension of Method acting? Is translating the personal relevance of racial memories into performance limited to the professional strategies of actors and directors? Their ultimate responsibility, after all, is to the text they are bringing to life. It is hard to imagine that playwrights do not drink at the same source, the more so when their racial memories bubble with appeals to the sensibilities as Kani's do. Like Greenblatt, I wondered immediately about the accessibility of correlative memories for Jews (perhaps that was Suzman's inspiration in the first place). Since my interest lies in plays that represent Jews and Jewish experience, my inquiry came to focus on the ways American Jewish playwrights draw on racial memories, or, more precisely, on how they use the viewpoints and emotions triggered by these memories.

Before I looked for evidence, I needed to define the kind of memory I was looking for and find a more accurate name for it. I share Greenblatt's distaste for the term "racial memory," partly because it is freighted with odious connotations for reasons that are obvious, although hardly irrelevant to the subject of my inquiry. Moreover, the use of the word "racial" is inapt in the study of the artistic...


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