Interview: Danny Braverman
Love, art and ﬁsh-balls - writer draws on his East East heritage
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A living wage: Danny Braverman’s great-uncle Ab drew on the back of his salary envelope
Danny Braverman is drawing his family tree. Above the branches supporting his sister and beyond that his parents and grandparents, the tree veers sharply to the left to include the two people who are central to his one man show Wot? No Fish!! - great-aunt and uncle, Celie and Ab.
The branches below the couple stop at their two boys - Larry, who was disabled and spent most of his life in a hospital, and Jeff, who was gay. So because Ab and Celie had no grandchildren, when Jeff died his effects went to Braverman's mother. Among them were the drawings that Ab did every week on the back of wage packets. There were 3,000 of them stored in shoe boxes under Jeff's bed.
One day, Braverman wondered if they might make a show. He sifted through them and slowly the story emerged of an unremarkable marriage documented in a most remarkable way - and of life in the Jewish East End where Ab and Celie used to live. The result, playing at the Battersea Arts Centre next month, has become a mini-theatrical phenomenon which is also bound for America and Australia. There's a book planned, too.
"It has changed my life," says Braverman who lectures on community theatre at Goldsmiths College. As we walk through the bustle and bedlam of Dalston's Ridley Road market, past stalls retailing dried meat of doubtful provenance, filled flatbreads and thawing fish staring out of polystyrene boxes, Braverman explains that this is where Celie used to do her Shabbat shopping even after she and Ab moved to north-west London.
Braverman pauses at the presumed location of one of his show's first drawings. "It was probably in the late '20s. You can feel the buzz. There are bowls of food being handed out," he says gesturing towards one of the stalls offering produce by the bowl. "And you can see Celie surrounded by people selling stuff."
Such everyday scenes would normally be only of passing historical interest. But these drawings have been created with such finesse and humour, and are so wry and unflinchingly honest, that Wot? No Fish!! has very quietly become a hit.
"We're taking it to Boston," Braverman tells me as we approach the road where Ab and Celie were raised. In fact, as children they could each see each other's homes from opposite sides of the street, so on one level this is a story about a lifelong love. The current occupants of Ab's house, a generous Victorian pile now incorporating four flats, is one of the show's big surprises. Braverman swears me to secrecy.
"We pause to take in the street, near where a minicab driver is munching on a piece of jerk chicken. Apart from the concrete Stars of David that crown what is now the Turkish Food Centre, we have passed very few signs betraying the area's Jewish past. But at least there are Ab's drawings. He drew one a week on the back of a wage packet from the family shoe business. And the art on the back of each packet has proved to be infinitely more valuable than were the contents.
"But social history is only part of it," Braverman stresses. "What Ab's art does is give us insight into reality. I talk about it being a true story of love, art and fish-balls. Right from the beginning, when the piece of art was only little doodles, Ab and Celie were clearly besotted with each other. Or at least he was with her. And then, as the family grows, you see life changing and getting more complicated.
"They're not in the first flush of love. [In one image] you see him coming home from work and saying: 'Honey give us a little loving.' She's got her hair all over the place, Larry's on the potty, Jeff's screaming his lungs out. She's busy trying to cook and clean at the same time. So what he's really saying is: 'You've got no time for me now.'"
The fish-balls come in at the beginning of each show. Handed out to the audience, they provide a flavour of the culture captured by Ab's art. But because he didn't flinch from showing the darker side of family life, the work also has an absorbing documentary quality.
The title comes from the weekly hospital visits to Larry who, used to having his diet supplemented by decent kosher fare, is depicted slightly outraged by the absence of his favourite food. And there are other pictures showing Celie going into hospital. Braverman has had to speculate on some of the circumstances behind the images.
"My theory is that he'd sit on a Thursday and ask what the thing was he wanted to capture. Sometimes it would be a game of bridge and sometimes it would be something very private and in the bedroom. Or the bathroom - Celie in the bath as Cleopatra. What he's doing is trying to hold together the family through their anxiety. Celie and the children were evacuated to Brighton and there's a letter from Celie telling him to get all the money out of the bank. That's a response of a Jew having escaped from pogroms," adds the writer and performer, whose great-great aunt, Celie's mother, was a refugee from Lithuania.
Braverman remembers Ab and Celie as his favourite great-uncle and aunt, of which there were many. "Ab was just funny. He was a joke teller and often the punchline was in Yiddish, so you wouldn't get it. He'd play with kids whose company he probably enjoyed more than the adults."
Ab's drawings of Celia showcased her beauty. She was slim and elegant and her sister Lillie, Braverman's grandmother, didn't think Ab was good enough for her. "Lillie intervened a lot in their marriage," he says. "There are lots of funny pictures of her."
Seen in earlier form at JW3 and at Edinburgh, where it received rave reviews, the show has been evolving since 2012. At Battersea it will, for the first time, be accompanied by an exhibition featuring many of the drawings showing Ab and Celie's life from the '20s through to the '80s.
Since the JC published one of Ab's images, more family have emerged. One is a cousin thought to be the last person alive who can remember seeing Ab drawing.
Braverman attempts to squeeze the additional relatives into the family tree. He just about manages. After this article, he may well need a much bigger canvas.
'Wot? No Fish!!' is at Battersea Arts Centre from July 1 - 19. www.bac.org.uk/wotnofish