Some actors fear caricaturing Jews, says musical star during 'Jewface' debate

How far should Jews should be involved in the representation of haimishe characters, asks panel debate


Some non-Jewish actors are hamstrung by their fear of caricaturing Jews, argued musical star Ben Caplan during an impassioned debate at Limmud about concerns over the casting of gentile actors in haimishe roles.

The session, which featured a three-member panel chaired by JW3 CEO Raymond Simonson, took its lead from the “Jewface” scandal earlier in the year in which a number of high profile actors wrote a letter condemning the lack of Jewish representation in a London production of Tony-winning musical Falsettos.  

Panel member Mr Caplan said that having worked with non-Jewish actors on honing their Jewish roles in Klezmer music-theatre hybrid Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story, he found that “some of the actors were afraid of caricaturing Jews and that fear of not wanting to play a caricature sometimes got in the way of expressing the subtext in a particular scene”.

He said: “Having created a show that very Jewish and relies very deeply on Jewish cultural modes of communication and Jewish history, Jewish expression, and working with actors who are not Jewish playing Jewish protagonists… made me aware of what is potentially challenging about that." 

By contrast, film expert Julia Wagner, also on the panel, pointed out that having Jewish people involved in a production does not always guarantee good portrayals.

“It doesn’t mean you can avoid offensive stereotypes,” she said.

“It’s a much wider argument than inclusivity. Symbols can be perpetuated [by both gentiles and Jews]. We also need non-Jews involved in Jewish productions." 

Mr Simonson highlighted how political context can influence the way Jews ‘read’ Jewish characters.

For example, he said, actress Maureen Lipman’s ‘Beattie’, star of the BT adverts in the 1980s and 1990s, was a universal hit at the time.

But when she reprised the character for a video attacking Jeremy Corbyn ahead of this month’s election, many felt “embarrassed” that such a stereotypical character was used to fight antisemitism, he added.

Another panel member, theatre director Adam Lenson,  said did not want “air freshened Jews - I want all kinds of Jews, including the dark sides” but added that he would be very concerned if Jews were completely left out of a production that involved portraying Jewish characters.

“It’s the difference between being in on the joke and the butt of the joke,” he said.

Giving an example of where non-Jewish actors have misrepresented Jewish culture during rehearsals, Mr Caplan said: “There is this climactic moment in Old Stock when the female lead is walking off the stage, she’s a little bit upset.

"The male lead says, ‘You’re a good mother and a good wife’, and she says, ‘I’m not a good wife’. And he says, ‘Sometimes you’re not’.

"And when it’s said without a Jewish cultural awareness it can come across as very cruel. With the Jewish cultural subtext, the intention behind the line is ‘so what, that’s not the point, I accept you as you are’." 

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