Clason and Monin look on as Brown twirls in a colorful cape. Braves plays violin.
Cast members (from left): Melissa Clason as Anna, with Benoît Monin as her lover, Crystal Brown and Carol Braves (Photo/ Jim Norrena)

In new play, cancer brings a sense of connection and a new tribe

“Female, Ashkenazi with Sewing Machine” is not, as one might think, a play about Jewish immigrant seamstresses. The new work by Berkley playwright Jamie Greenblatt, premiering Friday, April 21, is about another kind of tribe — that of cancer patients — and the need of all humans to belong.

portrait of Jamie Greenblatt
Jamie Greenblatt (Photo/Charley Lerrigo)

The drama concerns an adopted woman diagnosed midlife with ovarian cancer, but “it’s really about identity, heritage and how we make family,” Greenblatt said recently at the South Berkeley Community Church, where the production company Inferno Theatre performs.

The script, which features a sewing machine as one of the characters, fuses imagination and autobiography. Greenblatt — 61, energetic, upbeat and physically fit, with shoulder-length silver hair — is three years into remission after her own diagnosis of ovarian cancer. The idea for the play, she says, came to her during treatment at Alta Bates Hospital.

“Lying there in the bed, I had these lucid thoughts,” she recounted. “I could see things I’d never seen before and haven’t seen since. When you’re so close to death, that portal is there. And I saw this character who had grown up with a sewing machine as a kind of adoptive parent. She didn’t know who she was.”

Inferno’s artistic director, Giulio Cesare Perrone, said he founded Inferno Theatre in 2010 to produce “original works of consequence,” and encourages artists to take full creative license in exploring real-life issues.

Anna, the main character in “Female, Ashkenazi” is adopted, while Greenblatt was not (although she did adopt her son). Greenblatt was the eldest of four sisters born to a Jewish American couple who moved frequently for work. When she was a young child, they lived in El Salvador, and Greenblatt recalled watching a Salvadoran seamstress make clothes for the family. Greenblatt became adept with the machine and worked her way through Oberlin College sewing theater costumes, eventually entering the theater world as a performance artist. Why the sewing machine emerged as a dynamic element in her play is one of the mysteries of the creative process.

“This is what we’re talking about,” said Greenblatt. “The more fantastic scenes in my play are probably the most emotionally true. You just have to suspend disbelief. This is theater, not documentary. It makes sense when you watch the play.”

Anna knows nothing about her biological mother except that she sewed. So she spits into a vial to get genetic data and finds out she is an Ashkenazi Jew. Greenblatt herself did the gene testing, but “not until I was beginning to grow my hair back. It was for the script.”

Monin looks on as Clason uses a sewing machine with a paper boat perched on top of it
Anna (Melissa Clason) and her lover, Benjamin (Benoît Monin), in “Female, Ashkenazi With Sewing Machine” (Photo/Jim Norrena)

What she found out in the process was sobering: One in 40 Ashkenazi women has the BRCA gene mutation that can cause ovarian cancer, and there is a 50 percent chance that those who have this gene mutation will also get breast cancer.

Greenblatt does not have the gene mutation, but the character does, and the play charts the emotional course that Anna (Melissa Clason) and her lover, Benjamin (Benoît Monin), take as they consider the option of creating a family through adoption. The play goes on to examine the issue of genetic identity versus the identities formed by the families in which we are raised.

The third character is “the Ashkenazi Foundress” (Crystal Brown), a composite of the first four women who are believed to have started the Ashkenazi genetic lineage. The fourth performer is a violinist, played by Carol Braves, who serves as the Foundress’ alter ego and helps with transitions as the script journeys through space and time.

“My play is very much about the matrilineal line,” Greenblatt explained. “In this case, cancer is a gift. She becomes part of a tribe, which she didn’t have before the diagnosis. Cancer gave her a tribe.”

This is certainly something that Greenblatt took from her own experience. “I don’t have regrets about the cancer,” she said, describing how it made her a more appreciative person. But having this particular cancer was complicated: reinforcing her Ashkenazi tribal connection, for good or bad, as well as linking her to all other people affected by cancer: “I’m connected to everyone else in this world who has cancer, regardless of their heritage or their age.”

“Female, Ashkenazi with Sewing Machine” opens Friday, April 21 and runs Fridays-Sundays through May 7 at South Berkeley Community Church, 1802 Fairview St., Berkeley.

Laura Pall
Laura Paull

Laura Paull is J.'s former culture editor.