By Erin Pike, JTNews Correspondent
On March 30, two weeks before the liberation-themed holiday of Passover, the Stroum Jewish Community Center and Jewish Family Service are hosting a performance of “Freedom Song,” a musical workshop about freedom from addiction. “Freedom Song” is an original production of Los Angeles-based Beit T’Shuvah, a Jewish residential recovery facility with over 100 residents. JTNews correspondent Erin Pike spoke with James Fuchs, Beit T’Shuvah’s artistic director; underwriter Kenny Alhadeff of the Kenneth and Marleen Alhadeff Charitable Foundation; and Laura Kramer, Jewish Family Service’s Alternatives to Addiction counselor/educator. The 50-minute production, featuring a cast of Beit T’Shuvah alumni, is co-sponsored by the Stroum JCC and JFS, along with BBYO Evergreen Region, Bet Alef Meditative Synagogue, Camp Solomon Schechter, City of Mercer Island Youth and Family Services, Congregation Beth Shalom, Herzl-Ner Tamid Conservative Congregation, Livnot Chai, Temple Beth Am, Temple B’nai Torah, Temple De Hirsch Sinai, and Hillel at the University of Washington.
JTNews: How was Freedom Song created?
James Fuchs: In 2004, when I joined Beit T’Shuvah as the music director, I mentioned I wrote a musical called “Figaro’s Divorce,” and that I’d like to produce it at Beit T’Shuvah. There was no objection; [the organization] really wanted to do something with theater. “Figaro’s Divorce” was so successful that Rabbi Mark Borovitz said, “we have to have a Beit T’Shuvah play.” In 2005 Craig Calman, who was affiliated with Beit T’Shuvah, mentioned that he was doing a production called “Let Freedom Sing,” where there were many events happening in Los Angeles simultaneously through the week of Passover. One of the things he wanted to include was a play written by Beit T’Shuvah. Originally it wasn’t supposed to be a musical, it was supposed to be a play. The [Beit T'Shuvah] cantor at that time was Rebekah Mirsky, so myself and Rebekah got together and said, “let’s make a performance piece, let’s add some songs.” We wrote about 12 songs for the first draft, called “Freedom,” that would eventually become “Freedom Song.” Then [writer/director] Stuart K. Robinson came on board. He said, “I’d like to find some writings from residents that tell their story.” We met every Sunday at Beit T’Shuvah, and Stuart had residents write. He would take their writings and then bring it back and say, “This is what your story was, in a paragraph.” Stuart cut and added songs. That was the birth of “Freedom Song.”
JTNews: So the performance is autobiographical?
JF: Absolutely. As the play developed and evolved, what we found out was that some of the monologues that we had originally written pertained to that original person. When we brought in new actors to play those roles, we found out that you could write your own monologue. It’s the same play, but slightly different, because you hear different perspectives from other people’s stories.
JTNews: How did it grow into a touring production?
JF: This play was only supposed to be performed one time six years ago, but it never stopped. We had no control over this, it became this thing where people said, “We’d like this at our temple.” So we had done a lot of shows locally in Los Angeles. That was the springboard for our traveling. In 2007, we ended up in St. Louis at the Conference in Alternatives for Jewish Education convention. That was our first traveling gig. Someone sponsored flying 23 residents to St. Louis. That’s when they realized [touring] is something that can be done. It was a huge success. From then on, we’ve been to New York, New Jersey, Philadelphia, Miami, Minnesota. It sort of took off.
JTNews: What was the process of inviting Freedom Song to Seattle?
Laura Kramer: I heard about this play, and I thought this might be something that would be normalizing and lighter than the other events that deal with addiction. I proposed it well over a year ago, knowing that Beit T’Shuvah had gone to the East Coast, where they had really loved the performance and had a good turnout. I called Beit T’Shuvah to see if coming to Seattle was an option, and then it got rolling.
JTNews: Do you feel that the medium of musical theater is an effective way to discuss addiction?
Kenny Alhadeff: I don’t think there’s any subject that’s too intense, too serious, to not be addressed through musical theater. Song is a way of expressing human emotions. ["Freedom Song"] is a genuine production of people in recovery sharing their stories, which, hopefully, will open some minds and eyes and hearts. It’s about lifting the veil of ignorance in our community around addiction. The concept of “well, Jews don’t really have these problems…” we don’t have it any more or any less than anybody else.
My personal goal is to open every pathway of opportunity to recovery for every human being on the planet, whether they are Jewish or not Jewish. But being Jewish, I have a passion to make sure that we do not put up roadblocks to that opportunity through lack of understanding. There is no one that isn’t touched by the issue of addiction. ["Freedom Song" is] a chance to lift the soul and fuel a connection. These [performers] are people in recovery who are artistic and expressive, and every time they do this piece, they are putting another building block in the foundation of their recovery. If one person is inspired to deal with the addiction that may be destroying their lives by coming to this [show], it will all be worth it.
JTNews: What does addiction have in common with the story of Passover?
KA: It’s freedom from bondage. And addiction is slavery. Addiction is bondage. The tragedy [with addiction] is you are your own pharaoh; you have put your chains on yourself.
JTNews: Will there be any special post-show discussions or follow-up conversations for those who attend?
LK: In the after-session, the actors talk about their own stories and people can ask questions. Idealistically, people will be more willing to reach out for help [after seeing the performance].
JTNews: What benefits do you hope this production will have within our community?
KA: Partners in the community have come together for this, and that in itself, that collaborative effort, that “putting the light in the darkness of addiction in our community,” that makes this already successful. It’s the ability for people to share dialogue and face this situation that can affect any human being. We are so thrilled and excited that the leaders and partner organizations in the Jewish community have stood up and said, “No, not here, not our community. We will lift the veil of darkness, we will give people opportunities for recovery and hope in their lives.”
It’s going to be a celebration of human spirit and victory, day by day, one day at a time. There’s no recovery that is completed; it is a continual journey. There will be a feeling in the air, a feeling of hope and a feeling of opportunity.