By Miriah Auth
On Saturday, August 10th, performing artists took the stage at Off The Wall Productions in sweats and warm-up clothes only to walk out the theater exit. They led the audience into a vacant grassy lot adjacent to the theater where they held a religious ceremony before the start of their second showing of Queer, Jewish.
“We preface the Saturday evening shows with havdallah, the ritual of ending Shabbat,” said Olivia Tucker, the show’s dramaturg and meturgeman. “It helps ease into the secular week while trying to hold fast to those last super special moments.”
The lights dim and Moriah Ella Mason, who designed the show, assumes the stage. At times your laughter is abruptly cut by a serious chill in spoken word or movement and your emotions will pool trying to make sense of how you’re supposed to feel.
“I’ve heard that it’s been really meaningful for other queer Jews who have seen the show so far,” said Mason. “And I’m also trusting that folks who are not queer or Jewish will still find something in this authentic expression that will resonate with them.”
The piece describes the socially fabricated boxes we’re supposed to fit into, and the freedom found when we finally realize the possibility of living simultaneously in all and none of them.
Moriah Ella Mason, Ru Emmons, Sarah Freidlander, Harry J. Hawkins IV, Amelia Reuss and Olivia Tucker care for each other throughout the piece as they investigate the uncomfortable and find a way to own it.
Queer, Jewish explores the development of new traditions that integrate wisdom from the past with the freedom of the present through performative storytelling and the creative movement of a variety of unique body types.
Queer is defined as strange or odd when it is an adjective, but as a verb it is “to spoil or ruin (an agreement, event or situation.)”
It is seen as unconventional, undefined sexuality and/or gender. Essentially, it is a label designed to oppose the tradition of labeling while making it clear that queer individuals don’t follow the status quo of a binary, hetero-normative society.
“Queer culture is the result of seeking connection though shared marginalization,” said Tucker.
Mason began her investigation in Jewishness that led to the development of Queer, Jewish through multimedia works in 2015 and 2016.
“As part of that work I was interviewing my peers about their experiences with Jewishness and whiteness,” said Mason.
Staycee Pearl’s residency at Pearlarts Studios challenged Mason to ask herself some of those same questions.
“In that process it became very clear to me that my personal experiences of Jewishness and queerness were deeply linked,” said Mason.
The dancers wore futuristic metallic clothing, dramatic glittery makeup and at times black arm straps that represent tefillin (which are used in the Jewish faith for prayer) to have a “futuristic flavor, to feel flirty and queer and also to reference some traditional Jewish garments,” said Mason.
Some members of the cast change clothing to reflect shifts in gender presentation.
“At different points throughout the piece we accessorized with other costume layers because we wanted to reference different moments from the past and also just play with the idea of dress as a performance of identity that can be shifted very quickly and fluidly,” said Mason.
Sections of the work included dancers in black socks with two white stripes at the ankle while some other sections were done in bare feet.
“During the final portion of the show, when we move through a danced ritual to reconstruct ourselves as golems, everyone removes their socks because it felt important to me that we be as directly connected to the earth as possible,” said Mason.
This piece captures the discovery of being despised for who you are. It highlights how people come together to reclaim an identity that has been marginalized.
In a chilling moment during the first section, the words “I couldn’t handle being two despised things at the same time” ring from the ceiling speakers, chilling the audience and setting a solemn tone for the story to grow from.
According to Mason, creating this piece has “made me less afraid to claim the parts of myself that lie outside the mainstream culture and it’s made me more curious about the stories of other communities.”
Marginalized groups like the queer, Jewish diaspora have an opportunity to unite against hate and discover chosen families that can make their own traditions.
“Exodus 19:6 tells us that we are a nation of priests… now we have Rabbis who go to school, train and are usually called upon for big rituals like weddings and funerals, but any Jew can perform rituals they learn!” said Tucker, who received their Jewish Studies Certificate from the University of Pittsburgh in 2016.
This piece belongs in a time capsule, as it marks the evolution of a tradition that has been adapted to fit the demands of a more inclusive society.
“It feels powerful to offer visions of a queer, Jewish future at a time when queer folks and Jews are under an increasing threat,” said Mason. “I hope that folks who see the work feel cared for and bolstered to fight for safety and justice not just for us, but also for all the other communities being targeted.”
Miriah Auth is a Point Park University Senior double major in dance and journalism. She creates works based in the practice of physical and social healing. Originally from DC, this freelance artist and journalist now covers local theatrical dance performances. Her writings focus on capturing the whole story behind a dance piece and the effect it has on the performers involved through the dual lens of both a dancer and a journalist.