We All Walk The Trail of Tears in ‘And So We Walked’

DeLanna Studi in “And So We Walked.” Photos by Patrick Weishampel/Blankeye

By Shelley A. Sackett

When the pre-written announcement acknowledging Indigenous and Enslaved Peoples is read prior to every local theatrical production, it often feels disconnected from the show that follows. Not so with Cherokee actress, artist, and activist DeLanna Studi’s stunning one-woman autobiographical presentation, ‘And So We Walked.”

For 150-minutes (one intermission), we shadow Studi’s and her ancestors’ lives as members of the Cherokee nation. She and her full-blooded 70-year-old Cherokee father (her mother is white) spend six weeks retracing the Trail of Tears, that noxious route trudged by over 100,000 Native Americans in the 1800s after they had been forcibly removed from their homes by the U.S. government. It is the same path her great-great grandparents took during the relocation of 17,000 Cherokee people.

The audience learns how tens of thousands of Native Americans died in retention centers, and many more by way of the trail. The survivors never received the $5 million sale price of their land, nor promised reparations.

“Every great story has truth in it and that truth is dangerous,” Studi explains. “The Cherokee story is written in blood.”

She peppers the evening with anecdotes, history and geography lessons, and terrific metamorphoses into a dozen characters, embodying their subtle physical and dialectic idiosyncrasies. She is a riveting presence on stage; maintaining audience interest for over two hours is no small feat, one the opening night audience acknowledged with its standing ovation.

The simple, elegant set and judicious choice and use of props captures the trail’s atmosphere, straddling between contemporary and pre-removal Cherokee life. Large pieces of white horizontal fabric reflect a variety of projected images, conjuring interior and exterior spaces. Studi is a magician at using the set to invoke a school house, Cherokee Council House, SUV and campfire gathering.

She covers a lot of ground, delving into factual topics such as the forced “reeducation” of Native children in white boarding schools from the 1860s until the 1980s. She also tackles the personal, emotional and cultural issues surrounding what it means to be a Native American in contemporary America. She feels isolated and tribeless, a bridge between two worlds, neither of which she can ever fully claim as home.

Studi replays the scene when, as a young school girl, her teacher announced that “Indians are extinct.” Because she was only half Cherokee, the elders made her sit alone at tribal ceremonies. Later in life, when auditioning for acting roles, she was told she was too white for Native parts and too Native for white roles.

Her father tries to reassure her that blood quantity is irrelevant; she should be proud of her heritage, standing tall and strong as a Cherokee woman.

“Being Cherokee isn’t about blood,” he tells her. “It’s knowing who you are. And keeping it alive.”

On her own, personal trail of tears, Studi discovers who she really is and what her rights and responsibilities are as one of the very few whose ancestors survived the Trail of Tears. Searching for her place and identity, she uncovers her essence and where she fits in.

Studi is especially effective when she addresses the audience directly, letting them in on a joke or expressing a particular emotion on her manipulable face. Although her story is replete with loss, victimization and trauma, she has seasoned it generously with humor and wit.

After their journey, her father asks, “Didja get what you came for?” If ‘And So We Walked’ is representative of what Studi gained, I’d say we all came out winners.

For tickets and information, go to: https://artsemerson.org/

‘And So We Walked’ — Created and Performed by DeLanna Studi. Directed by Corey Madden; Scenic Design by John Coyne; Costume Design by Andja Budincich; Lighting and Projection Design by Norman Coates; Sound Design and Original Music by Bruno Louchouarn. Co-represented by Octopus Theatricals and Indigenous Performance Productions. Presented by Arts Emerson at the Emerson Paramount Center, 559 Washington St., Boston through April 30, 2023.

Deb Schutzman to become executive director at Swampscott’s Congregation Shirat Hayam


By Shelley A. Sackett

SWAMPSCOTT — About a year ago, Congregation Shirat Hayam President Ruth Estrich knew the synagogue would be hiring an executive director. The board of directors had included the salary in their budget and generated the revenue to fund it.

The Swampscott synagogue didn’t have to travel far to find the perfect fit: Deb Schutzman has worked at Temple B’nai Abraham in Beverly for 18 years, the last 15 as its executive and education directors. B’nai Abraham is just over 7 miles from Shirat Hayam.

It has been a while since Shirat Hayam had an executive director, and Estrich, a retired corporate executive, knew what the synagogue needed.

“We were looking for a seasoned professional, someone who would be capable of leading our employees, working collaboratively with our clergy, being the face of our congregation with our congregants, and supporting our board and our volunteers,” Estrich said.

In addition, the synagogue wanted someone who would honor Shirat Hayam’s history; create unprecedented growth for the future and attract new members; increase revenue; and provide all segments of the community with a place to call home.

“A piece of cake!” Estrich said with a laugh.

The next step was to craft a contemporary and comprehensive job description. The Shirat Hayam human resource committee – after gathering information from congregational stakeholders – created a draft. They vetted it with two national organizations: the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism – the major congregational organization of Conservative Judaism in North America – and the North American Association of Synagogue Executives.

Estrich heard about Schutzman through “good old-fashioned networking.” They connected online and set up an in-person meeting.

“I knew immediately and absolutely our search was over. It felt bashert [Yiddish for “meant to be”], like the missing piece of our puzzle was in place,” she said.
Schutzman, who was born in Lowell and lives in Gloucester, brings expertise in community building, facility management, and strategic planning. She also has a deep love for the Jewish community of the North Shore. During her years as executive director at B’nai Abraham, she participated in hiring a new rabbi, a successful merger, increasing adult education programming, adding music to services, and launching a capital campaign.

While Schutzman loved her tenure at B’nai Abraham, she was ready for a change. “Shirat Hayam faces the same challenges as other synagogues. We all need to get people back into the building,” she said.

Although she acknowledged that the pandemic made attending services virtually both easier and more acceptable, “Nothing compares to being physically together. Shabbat is just not an ordinary experience at Shirat Hayam. There is an energy when we are physically together that makes it very special.”

One of her greatest joys at B’nai Abraham was her involvement with the religious school, and she especially loves watching kids come into the sanctuary at the end of Shabbat services and high-five Rabbi Michael Ragozin before chanting the blessings over wine and challah.

“Children are our greatest gifts. While teaching them, we are reminded about what is truly important and meaningful in life. The value of that teaching experience for me was priceless,” she said.

As executive director, Schutzman’s first focus at Shirat Hayam will be assessing its staffing needs. “Shirat Hayam has an incredible staff who have worked tirelessly over the past few years to hold things together during very unusual circumstances,” she said. As the congregation turns the corner on the pandemic and its ramifications, the needs of the community require reevaluation.

“Synagogue life has changed. How we communicate and interact is different now, and we need to ensure that we have the people in place with the skills to meet those needs,” she said.

Schutzman’s longer-range goals are to stabilize the operations side of the synagogue; improve communication; training and support for staff; address deferred facility maintenance; and plan for the future.

“I want to help fill the building not just for services, but for educational and social programming, life cycle events, and celebrations,” she said.

Schutzman attended Hebrew day schools from kindergarten through ninth grade. She lived in Israel for two years during high school and graduated from the New England Academy of Torah in Providence. She studied business administration at Stern College of Yeshiva University in Manhattan and UMass Lowell, after which she spent 12 years in retail store management for Macy’s and Filene’s Basement before joining B’nai Abraham.

She is the proud mother of Benjamin and Andrew and loves kayaking on the Annisquam River from May though November, “especially at sunset.”

With her term as president nearing its end, Estrich will be leaving on a personal high note with Schutzman at the organizational helm. “I’d say that with Rabbi Michael, Cantor Sarah and Deb, we’ve got the dream team and the sky’s the limit. I can’t wait to see where they take us,” she said.

Sassy, Somber and Sensual — Paul Taylor Dance Company Covers All the Bases

Full cast of Paul Taylor Dance Company at Boch Center — Shubert Theatre. Photos by Ron Thiele

By Shelley A. Sackett

Paul Taylor, whose imagination, emotional breadth and sheer physical ability helped shape and define the purely American art form known as modern dance, never fails to amaze and enchant. The thunderous opening night applause from the standing audience shows that, if anything, the company has only increased its seductive power over its Boston fans.

The three pieces (two by founding Artistic Director Paul Taylor), separated by intermissions, provided an evening of athletic exuberance and emotional depth, choreographer Taylor’s trademark, as well as the unabashed joy of the opening number, Amy Hall Gardner’s “Somewhere in the Middle,” a fun and sassy piece set to a selection of classical jazz music.

The evening opens on Donald Martiny’s jazzy set of textured paint squiggles hanging against a black backdrop. Count Basie’s toe-tapping music sets the mood for the ensemble to burst onto the stage, clad in Mark Eric’s yummy pastel costumes (briefs and bras overlaid with sheer, shimmering fabric). They tumble, leap, roll on the floor with nymph-like speed and charm, matching Ella Fitzgerald’s famous scats and bends with fancy foot and arm work.

Gardner’s piece makes excellent use of the ensemble while also allowing for individual dancers to grab the spotlight. A pas de deux slows things down, the romantic couple engaging in what my companion referred to as the “hunt” of search, attract, repel and retreat. Softer lighting (by the talented Jennifer Tipton) and sexier movements complement the darker, more fitted costumes.

Nonetheless, the overwhelming effect of this selection was of sweet, campy, happy couples who danced their way through dream-like vignettes.

Taylor’s “Brandenburgs” sets an entirely different tone. Johann Sebastian Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos nos. 6 and 3 are from the Baroque era, that period that bridged the Renaissance, with its emotional reawakening, and the Classical era with its return to the staid and formal values of antiquity.

Taylor and costume designer Santo Loquasto reflect the formality and romanticism of this refined early eighteenth century time.

The curtain lifts to a sculptural tableau reminiscent of the figures atop the piece’s namesake gate in Berlin. Slowly, subtle lighting shifts to reveal three women (muses?) and a man (Apollo?) standing in a circle of five male dancers.

The costumes are bejeweled and traditional, regal and lovely but, compared to the other two pieces, uptight and unexciting. The choreography is likewise dignified and constrained. Under Tipton’s thoughtful lighting, the dancers’ skin is luminescent, glowing in silhouette against a matte black backdrop. They shimmer in what feels like slow motion, capturing the sheer genius of Taylor’s talent at spinning breathtaking magic from simple hand gestures.

With the final piece, Taylor’s “Company B,” the evening is back to its opening cheeriness, albeit with a layer of complexity and subtlety not present in Garner’s work. Set during Second World War time, the mood is established by a soundtrack of songs sung by the Andrews Sisters meant “to express typical sentiments of Americans during WWII.” Crafted as a series of interconnected sketches, the dancers shine both collectively and individually.

Loquasto’s costumes are nothing short of adorable. White anklets and sneakers, red belts (for men and women), rolled up button down shirts, wide khakis and twirling skirts feel sock hop cute. The youngsters flirt, smooch and jitterbug, ponytails and skirls flying.

Taylor also conjures up a sense of the darkness of the times. There are silhouettes of men marching to war, couples uncoupling and lovers abandoned. This is a gorgeous, multifaceted and complicated piece, rendered sublime by the gifted cast of dancers.

The highlights are the eight solo numbers, which finally give the audience a chance to appreciate the individual personalities of some of the dancers. All shine, but there are three true stand outs. Alex Clayton is the mannerly guy next door in “Tico, Tico” until he is not. John Harnage, in Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy (of Company B), lights up the stage.

But the real show stopper (who pops in every piece, even when she is one of many in the chorus) is Madelyn Ho in “Rum and Coca-Cola.” Spritely, impossibly lissome and exquisitely cute, it is difficult to look away from this beguiling dancer.

Even if modern dance isn’t your “thing,” don’t miss the magic of this high caliber, delightful and uplifting performance. There’s still time!

For tickets and information go to: https://www.celebrityseries.org/productions/paul-taylor-dance-company/

Paul Taylor Dance Company – Artistic Director Michael Novak; Founding Artistic Director – Paul Taylor; Resident Choreography – Lauren Lovette; Lighting Designer – Jennifer Tipton; Costume Design – Donald Martiny; Costume Design – Mark Eric and Santo Loquasto. Presented by Celebrity Series of Boston at Boch Center — Shubert Theatre, 265 Tremont St., Boston, through April 16.

‘Clyde’s’ serves up redemption, one sandwich at a time

Harold Surratt and April Nixon in the Tony Award nominated “Clyde’s.” / KEVIN BERNE

By Shelley A. Sackett/JEWISH JOURNAL

Tikkun Olam, as explained in the Mishnah, is a Jewish concept defined by acts of kindness performed to perfect or repair the world. There are innumerable ways for us to do tikkun olam in our daily lives, each one with the potential to change everything for everyone.

Although it’s unlikely playwright Lynn Nottage had this concept in mind as she wrote the Tony Award-nominated comedy “Clyde’s,” now in production at the Huntington through April 23, its message runs throughout her play.

The setting (and what a set it is!) is Clyde’s, a truck stop café near Reading, PA. More than a way station for the road-weary, it is also a shelter for its four employees, all felons. For the three recent arrivals who need to show a weekly paycheck to maintain parole, it is also their only shot at getting back on track after derailment. Montrellos (Monty), Clyde’s elder statesman, role model and Zen master, supervises this crew.

Under the annihilative command of Clyde, the owner, achieving that goal is an uphill battle.

The play opens with Clyde and Monty (dressed in bright dashiki and kufi) in mid-conversation. He begs her to taste his latest creation, a sublime twist on the grilled cheese sandwich. She blows cigarette smoke in response. Wearing a glow-in-the-dark orange waist-length wig and exterior black corset, she looks like a cross between a deranged Tina Turner imposter and an S&M dominatrix. The effect is terrifying.

Instead of tasting the sandwich, she uses it to crush out her cigarette, just as she relentlessly snuffs out any hint of hope or happiness she senses smoldering.

The staff live in fear of her temper and she taunts them sadistically with threats to make up a parole violation and report them to the police. Behind the kitchen’s swinging door, without her lurking, they are free to connect and actually enjoy their work. Cautiously, they relearn how to trust, revealing what landed them in the slammer. Letitia, a quick-witted, sassy single mom, broke into a pharmacy to steal unaffordable seizure medicine for her daughter. Rafael, a playful recovering addict, tried to rob a bank with a BB gun while high. Jason, Clyde’s only white employee, is covered in white supremacy tattoos and fresh out of prison for assault.

In his role as mentor, Monty is kind, sage and committed to helping his charges survive their difficult transition. Although he doesn’t reveal why he served time until the play’s end, he has clearly walked the same walk.

His trick is the quest to create the perfect sandwich, that “most democratic of all foods.” Sandwiches can be more than the quotidian ingredients they slap between two pieces of bread for the café’s clientele, Monty counsels. They can reflect their creators’ dreams and truths. They even have the magic power to unlock the gate to their salvation. He is living proof.
The others bite, joining him on his pilgrimage. They bond over shared imaginary recipes, light-heartedly chanting ingredients like tantric mantras. After hours, each secretly works out combos that might earn Monty’s approval and, by extension, launch them toward a sense of self-worth.

Clyde doesn’t see sandwiches (or anything else) through the same rose-tinted lenses as Monty. Although she, too, was imprisoned, empathy and tikkun olam hardly drive her to hire only ex-cons. Rather, she uses them as cheap labor to populate her own sort of jail where she reigns as warden to these “loser” ex-prisoners who float in painful limbo between “real” prison and the ersatz one she has created.

Against great odds, and with Monty’s critical help, her employees ultimately free themselves from her grip by banding together and refusing to follow an order they just cannot abide. Although what triggers their rebellion is on its surface comedic, Nottage deftly handles this turning point moment, plumbing it for deeper beauty, poignancy and strength.

Nottage also has a gift for comedy, and under Taylor Reynold’s tight direction, her zingers are laugh-out-loud funny. The terrific actors playing the kitchen crew are an airtight ensemble that breathe life into their parts.

Unfortunately, the same is not true of the unnuanced Clyde. To be fair, Nottage has created a cardboard caricature, giving the actress little to work with. The distraction of her dozen or so wig and outfit changes only emphasizes the playwright’s missed opportunity in not fully fleshing her out.

Which is too bad, because Clyde exemplifies what can happen when, in pursuit of financial gain and raw power, we lose sight of what really feeds and sustains us. Luckily, her crew has Monty, with his belief in the restorative power of the sandwich, to lead by example and show them a better way.

For more information and to buy tickets, visit www.huntingtontheatre.org.