Jewish Theatre brings literary luminary Paley to life

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To portray Grace Paley, Naomi Newman did not have to imagine what the late poet and novelist was like. The co-founder of the Jewish Theatre in San Francisco met Paley several times.

Most memorable, perhaps, was a meeting in 1982 in New York, when Newman directed a private performance of her play “Dance of Exile.” The audience was made up of a single person: Grace Paley.

“She was so authentic and down to earth,” recalls Newman of the great Jewish American author, “almost as if she were your best friend’s wonderful mother and made you feel at home, cared about you and gave you cookies.”

Newman hopes her new one-woman show, “Becoming Grace,” will prove a sweet treat for Bay Area theatergoers. The final original production to be mounted by the Jewish Theatre, which shuts down after this season, it runs March 15-25 at TJT’s San Francisco theater.

Grace Paley

Newman has spent the better part of the last year collaborating with director Jayne Wenger and writing the script, culled from snatches of Paley’s stories, poems, essays and interviews. The play is autobiographical, describing Paley’s life as a Jewish writer, mother, activist and, ultimately, lioness of literature.

The words are entirely Paley’s, with Newman adding nothing, or needing to.

“It was a very big job reading everything, collecting and organizing all the material I loved,” Newman says. “It’s not linear, but it’s all there: her life as a child in the east Bronx, her political life, her love affair with her husband, life in Vermont and aging and death.”

Paley grew up in a Russian- and Yiddish-speaking household. A lifelong poet, and highly educated in literature, she began publishing stories and poems in the 1950s while maintaining a teaching career at Sarah Lawrence College. She was an ardent feminist and pacifist.

Her stories often carried the cadences of the Russian and Yiddish speakers of her childhood. Paley’s verse, typically lacking punctuation, pushed the boundaries of poetic inflection, and earned her the honor of being Vermont’s poet laureate for several years.

Naomi Newman

Newman counted herself among the Paley faithful. She read everything she published, and participated in several Word for Word stagings of Paley stories (as the name implies, the company acts out prose stories word for word).

She also organized a local memorial for Paley after the author died in 2007 at the age of 84.

“She was peasant folk,” Newman says of her literary heroine, adding of her Jewish-influenced lilt, “She realized she’d been writing with only one ear: the ear for literature. But writing stories helped [her] remember her home languages, Russian and Yiddish.”

Summing up Paley’s overarching literary theme, Newman says, “Literature was about life and how people live. In any story you have to deal with money and blood, how people earn a living and the relationships in their families.”

For more than a third of a century, Newman’s “family” included the actors and staffers of TJT. In 1978, she and two others co-founded the company in Los Angeles, bringing it north to San Francisco in 1982. Over the years, she wrote, directed and acted in scores of productions, and toured the country with some of them.

Eventually, the economic challenges proved too great, and last August TJT announced it would close for good.

While Newman says she feels sad about the theater closing, “I feel proud that we have lasted and done really good work for 34 years. That’s a very long haul for a very small theater, especially one with an esoteric mission.”

After TJT shutters for good later this spring, Newman will pursue other projects, including a possible tour with “Becoming Grace.”

Whatever turns up, Newman will continue acting. For the TJT co-founder, the curtain never comes down. “You’re alive until you’re dead,” she says. “While you’re working, it’s very enlivening.”

“Becoming Grace,”
March 15-25, the Jewish Theatre, San Francisco, 470 Florida St., S.F. $10-$20.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.