Erasing gender and race barriers puts a new face on ‘1766’

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Bobbie Steinbach (as Benjamin Franklin) and Benjamin Evett (as John Adams). [All photos by Andy Brilliant/Brilliant Photography]

By Shelley A. Sackett

 

Digging deep into the history of the United States reveals a largely unrecognized fact: Jews played a role in the events that launched the American Revolution. Like their fellow early settlers, they were divided in their loyalties, but there is no denying they had skin in the game.

The most famous revolutionary Jew was Polish-born Haym Salomon, a successful foreign securities dealer who helped finance the American cause. Francis Salvador was the first Jew elected to public office in the colonies. He was also the first Jew killed in the American Revolutionary War, fighting in 1776 on the South Carolina frontier. Abigail Minis was a Savannah, Ga., businesswoman and landowner who helped supply provisions for the revolutionary forces.

 

Don’t hold your breath, however, waiting for these unsung Jewish patriots to appear in The New Rep Theatre’s production of the 1969 Broadway hit, “1776.” The Tony-award-winning musical now onstage in Watertown focuses exclusively on the tumultuous political machinations that led to the signing of the Declaration of Independence on July 4. Our Jewish revolutionaries are not even a footnote.

 

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The cast of 1776

 

Nonetheless, co-directors Austin Pendleton and Kelli Edwards (the same team that breathed new life into the thread-worn “Fiddler on the Roof”) manage to shake things up by launching the play into the 21st century and casting it as gender and race neutral. Women play men, men play women, and the racial diversity on stage rivals that of “Hamilton.”

The strategy is, for the most part, clever and effective. The always-outstanding Bobbie Steinbach is dazzling as Ben Franklin. She steals every scene she is in (which is most of them) with her impeccable timing and gestures. It also doesn’t hurt that her character’s lines are the script’s best crafted.

The three-hour show takes place during a long, steamy Philadelphia summer. The Second Continental Congress, an unruly, exhausted and petulant group of men representing the original 13 colonies, meets day after day in a stifling room ‒ the windows can’t be opened or the chamber would fill with flies. Front and center on their agenda is deciding whether to declare national independence and unite formally in rebellion against British rule or remain separate sovereign colonies.

John Adams of Massachusetts is desperate to persuade this ill-tempered and motley crew that time is running out. If Congress doesn’t act now as a united front to throw off Great Britain’s tyranny, he fears General George Washington’s ragtag and outnumbered army will suffer crushing and lethal defeat.

The stumbling block is that Adams (in a spot on performance by Benjamin Evett) is, even by his own admission, obnoxious and disliked. Few take him or his ideas seriously. As the days pass, the room temperature and tempers flare, threatening to derail Adams’ dream. “It’s a revolution. We’re going to have to offend someone!” he bellows as yet another delegate proposes a self-serving amendment.

The script, based on the book by Peter Stone, is at times a starchy history lesson, unwavering in its emphasis on facts and chronology. The lackluster score and competent but uninspired choreography and lighting do not lighten the load. Although the audience leaves chock-full of knowledge, the lingering aftertaste is of a snack chosen for nutritional value rather than flavor.

White men comprised the real Second Congress. In this modern version, half the delegates are women, dressed as ‒ and playing the roles of ‒ men. Although initially distracting, the novelty soon wears off and everyone becomes a co-equal delegate. Suddenly, what really matters are the words they speak, not how they look or sound.

 

The directors succeed in creating a truly representative body, one that is color blind and gender neutral, united by the simple commonality of humanness. Basking in that possibility, even if it is only make believe, is well worth the price of admission.

 

Through Dec. 30 at the Mosesian Center for the Arts, 321 Arsenal St., Watertown. Tickets are $22 (student) to $72. Visit newrep.org or call 617-923-8487.

 

 

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Salem’s Root celebrates three years of helping at-risk youth

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Peter Endicott, the owner of Salem’s Cheese Shop and Root graduate Henrique Corminas prepare the hors d’oeuvre that they created especially for Root’s 3rd Annual Celebration. [All photos by Alyse Gause Photography

By Shelley A. Sackett

 

Last Wednesday evening, over 200 people filled Root’s elegant HarborPoint event space overlooking the harbor at Shetland Park, enjoying fine food, stylish table settings and festive lights. The well-heeled patrons were not gathered for just another holiday party. Rather, they were attending a third birthday party fundraiser for Root, a non-profit culinary-based training program for at-risk youth. They also celebrated honoree Deborah Jeffers, Root advisory council member and school nutrition director for Salem Public Schools, who received the 2018 Root Community Leadership Award.

 

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Founder and Board Chair Jennifer Eddy, Root graduate Nicky Lebron of Salem, Nutrition Director for Salem Public Schools Deborah Jeffers and 2018 Root Community Leadership Award Recipient, parent of Root graduate Leticia Carrasco, Root graduate Cassandra Bartolo of Beverly, Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll and Root Executive Director M. Scott Knox were all speakers during the program at Root’s 3rd Annual Celebration.

 

 

Mayor Kim Driscoll hosted the Third Annual Gala and presented the award to Jeffers. “Who doesn’t like an organization that helps kids?” Mayor Driscoll asked rhetorically as she kicked off the formal program.

 

The Mayor spoke of Salem’s relationship with Jeffers, who eleven years ago proposed a food program in the public schools to provide fresh, wholesome, scratched-cooked meals with locally sourced ingredients. Today, this initiative has gained national attention and provides more than 900,000 nourishing meals a year. Every Salem school student gets free breakfast and lunch, regardless of need.

 

 

Jeffers also connected early on with Root founder and chairman of the board Jennifer Eddy to offer advice about setting a program that could both serve Salem Public School kids and be successful. “She is an exceptional partner and it is a pleasure to honor her,” Mayor Driscoll said.

 

Jeffers spoke briefly about the importance of food growing, preparation and sharing as a community to help lift us all up. “I don’t usually speak in front of a group. I’m more of a back room kind of person,” she admitted.

 

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Table of hors d’oeuvres in the kitchen for Root’s 3rd Annual Celebration includes Root’s own pickled vegetables and “Oat-eez” along with other catering items that are sold at the Root Café in Shetland Park. [Photo by Alyse Gause Photography]

Root is a social enterprise that focuses on the food industry as a training tool for at-risk youth ages 16 to 24 who have significant barriers to employment. Through a rigorous 12-week, 200-hour, work-force training program, students (called Program Partners) learn career and life skills through hands-on experience. “Root is the on ramp for youth in Essex County with an obstacle to success,” said M. Scott Knox, Root executive director.

 

Proceeds from the event will help support Root’s Essex County job skills training program.

 

It all started when Eddy had an idea she wanted to pursue to give at risk youth an opportunity to build a better life and break the cycle of poverty. She had visited and was impressed with D.C. Central in Washington, D.C. and Liberties Kitchen in New Orleans, two successful programs that use the culinary arts to train motivated young adults to access employment and education, and develop their skills as leaders and mentors.

 

When she returned, she put together a group of people, including her friend Elisabeth Massey, who serves on the Root board as community volunteer. They used the same structure and training program model Eddy encountered in D.C. and New Orleans. “She took the best of those two organizations and tailored it to our needs in Salem,” Massey said.

 

The result is Root, which operates a training program as well as several lines of food service-based businesses out of its Shetland Park facilities. These provide a training environment for the students and also generate revenue to support the mission. They include: The Root Café, which offers breakfast and lunch items; Catering By Root, and HarborPoint at Root, a new 2,200 square foot special event site. “Kids in the program learn by working in a real business,” Massey said.

 

Training is an intensive curriculum that runs Monday-Friday with four-hour morning and afternoon shifts. Program Partners attend life skills workshops, one-on-one career readiness coaching, and culinary training in Root’s on-site full catering kitchen. Root graduates are equipped with industry-certified credentials and direct skills that give them a sense of accomplishment and an advantage in seeking employment. “They leave Root with the skills not just to get a job, but to keep a job,” said Knox.

 

Referrals to the program come through the school system, the Department of Children & Families, social workers and word-of-mouth. Candidates who demonstrate a “barrier to success”, such as socio-economic level, housing status, or learning disability, go through an application and interview process. The average age is between 18 and 19 and Root just graduated its fifth cohort, marking almost 100 graduates in three years. “We really try to do whatever we can to be successful,” Massey said.

 

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Root graduate Nicky Lebron of Salem, Root graduate Arianna Couturier from Salem, Root Founder and Board Chair Jennifer Eddy, Root graduate Jayla Bryant from Salem, Root graduate Nevada Winter from Salem, Nutrition Director for Salem Public Schools Deborah Jeffers and 2018 Root Community Leadership Award Recipient gather at Root’s 3rd Annual Celebration. 

 

Recent graduates Nicky LeBron and Cassandra Bartholow praised the program. “For the first time, I felt like I was able to accomplish something for myself. I learned to be more proactive. I learned what I’m good at is working with people,” said Bartholow, whose mother works in Shetland Park and heard about Root.

 

LeBron is a 2018 Salem High School alum. On the last day of school, his class took a field trip to Root, and he knew immediately Root was for him. “What I loved about Root is — everything!” he exclaimed. “My mentors also felt like my friends. I could go to them about anything, not just cooking.”

 

 

Root is located in Shetland Park, 35 Congress Street, Building 2, Third Floor. For more information or to volunteer or make a donation, visit rootns.org or call 978-616-7615.