Where Chasids and gay Filipinos collide

A new play shows what happens when two very different worlds meet


By John Nathan, March 8, 2013
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Philip Himberg

Philip Himberg

If you are going to the Tricycle to see the north London theatre’s latest production, who exactly are you?

Are you a Chasid curious to see how a musical depicts your community? Are you a Filipino wanting to see a show whose heroes are emigres from Manila?

Perhaps you are gay with a penchant for drag acts. Or an Israeli who is desperate to see a show about your country that is not about the Middle East conflict. Or maybe you are just a curious theatre-goer wondering how on earth an award-winning Israeli documentary about Philippine care workers in Tel Aviv, who look after Orthodox men by day and perform as a drag act by night, will make the transfer to the stage.

“I don’t know who we’ll get,” admits Philip Himberg. The American writer of Paper Dolls, perhaps the most risky and risque show in the Tricycle’s current season, is probably too busy working on the world premiere of this seemingly oddball play with music, to worry about audience demographics.

Today, he and the theatre’s artistic director Indhu Rubasingham have to work out whether a particularly funny scene in Himberg’s script has to be cut. It is set in a synagogue prayer room where Chasidic men are discussing the Torah. One of their number enters. He is about 80, suffers from dementia and has his ever so camp Filipino carer, Chiqui, on his arm.

As the other Chasids suspicion of Chiqui becomes respect for how he looks after their fellow Jew, we see something of the dynamic of this show — the coming together of two utterly different cultures. Perhaps even the forming of a mutual respect.

A scene from Paper Dolls

A scene from Paper Dolls

“We might cut it,” says Himberg as he tucks into a salad during his lunch break. “We’re not sure it moves the plot on.” Whether it makes it or not, the scene is true to the spirit of the documentary, directed by Tomer Heymann, on which the play is based. Himberg saw it at the Los Angeles Film Festival in 2006.

“It was about Filipinos emigrating from Manila to Tel Aviv and looking after Chasidic Jews. And in the time they have off they are part of this drag queen performing group. I just said to myself: ‘This is so theatrical. I can just see it on stage’. It’s a story with themes that I’m interested in — crossing borders, finding home, the clash of cultures and of course the performance element.”

Himberg is the artistic director of Sundance Theatre, the stage wing of the more famous film operation. And although the organisation he runs has helped playwrights develop many a show that has gone on to be hugely successful, playwriting is not really his bag. Directing is more his thing. Still, he started work on a first draft. The research took him to Tel Aviv.

“Tomer took me round the city on the back of a bike. We went to the Yemenite neighbourhood where the real-life Chiqui lived; we went to Bnei Brak which is like 18th-century Poland where all the Chasids live, and we went to gay nightclubs. We went everywhere.”

Paper Dolls is set at a time when suicide bombs were still a regular occurrence in Israel. With the erection of the security wall, most Palestinian workers were no longer allowed to work in Israel. And although Israel opened its doors to Filipino workers, they did so under what Himberg calls draconian laws, which only allowed them to work for a specific employer. If that person died or they were sacked, the migrants were then illegal.
Even so, says Himberg, “they were saying: ‘We love Israel. We have a home here’. And they can’t get citizenship ever.” He adds that four of the Filipinos are now living in London. At least one of them is working at a Jewish care home.

Himberg appears to be well qualified to write a show seasoned with Yiddish and which features Jews, gays and music and a Chasidic chorus that sings Hebrew and English pop songs.

“My mother taught Yiddish for kids at Yale. I grew up in a very Reform, left-wing community in the 1960s in Connecticut. Martin Luther King spoke to us from the pulpit in our synagogue when I was eight. It was very much about social justice, about tutoring kids, reading to the elderly, and campaigning for civil rights. It was very political and wonderful. And I would say its heart was tikkun olam. Bottom line — that’s what it is to be a Jew. It wasn’t the tallit or the yarmulkah.”

It was possibly that liberal background that gave Himberg the confidence to pioneer a lifestyle that has taken up a lot of parliamentary time recently in this country. He is married to man. The day we meet, politicians and theologians happen to be arguing that the institution of marriage will be corrupted if gay people are allowed to wed.

“The arguments feel so stale. When people say ‘gay people can’t be parents’, it’s like ‘too late! She’s 21 years old!’”, says Himberg, referring to his own daughter Fanny.

After the interview we bump into Rubasingham. Himberg points to me and says: “He likes the prayer room scene”. Rubasingham, however, is concerned about the show being too long and is reluctant to include it.
Not that it matters a great deal. There is already plenty in Paper Dolls for the Chasidic contingent of the audience — and for the gays, Filipinos, Israelis, transvestites, or whoever else goes to see it.

‘Paper Dolls’ is at the Tricycle Theatre, London NW6 until April 13. Box office: 020 7328 1000. www.tricycle.co.uk

Last updated: 11:45am, March 8 2013