A Works Progress Administration poster for a production of "It Can't Happen Here" in Detroit during World War II. (Photo/Library of Congress)
A Works Progress Administration poster for a production of "It Can't Happen Here" in Detroit during World War II. (Photo/Library of Congress)

Demagogue president revived in Yiddish theater’s new take on 1936 play

In 1936, the play “It Can’t Happen Here” by American writer Sinclair Lewis was presented simultaneously by 21 theater companies across the country. The controversial work, which tells the story of a populist president who leads the United States into authoritarianism, had special resonance as fascism was spreading in Europe.

Current events have given the work new resonance today.

A new reading of the play has been released just before the U.S. election. Performed on Zoom by actors representing a collective of theater companies around the world, including a Yiddish one, the play was released Oct. 28 and is available online through Nov. 1.

“It’s a call to action. We want people to participate in democracy. That’s how we prevent dictatorship from taking hold,” Motl Didner, associate director of the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Folksbiene, a 105-year-old company housed at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York, joined forces with eight other companies to put on the production, which includes scenes performed in six languages — English, Yiddish, Hebrew, Italian, Spanish and Turkish.

The companies include Israeli Artists Project, Kairos Italy Theater, Repertorio Español, Turkish American Repertory Theater & Entertainment, Pan Asian Repertory Theatre, New York Classical Theatre and Playful Substance.

“That’s what America is. America is a collection of communities. it’s a collection of people from all over and it’s that American spirit that we’re trying to put forward,” Didner said.

The project is intended to encourage dialogue and motivate citizens to exercise their civic power and vote, according to a statement.

Folksbiene first started planning the production last year after staff came across the 1936 Yiddish translation of the script. The original performance was part of a New Deal initiative to fund the arts that staged the play simultaneously in 17 states. Among the 21 theater companies was the communist-influenced Yiddish theater Artef.

Folksbiene's virtual production of "It Can't Happen Here" features scenes in Yiddish and five other languages. (Screenshot from Zoom)
Folksbiene’s virtual production of “It Can’t Happen Here” features scenes in Yiddish and five other languages. (Screenshot from Zoom)

The play was adapted from a novel by the same name published a year earlier by Sinclair Lewis. It chronicles the political rise and resistance against fictional populist demagogue Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip, who calls for a return to “traditional” values. After being elected president, Windrip starts setting up a paramilitary force, sends political dissidents to concentration camps and limits the rights of women and minorities.

Coalescing a number of companies, languages and cultures brought some challenges. Since each theater company does one or two scenes, the actor playing each part changes eight times. And many of the companies perform in foreign languages. To ensure that viewers follow along, each actor’s square is labeled with the character he or she is portraying and every scene is subtitled.

“You’ll see different faces, different cultures and different gestures from different countries and you’ll understand that it’s telling one story from the heart,” said Ayse Eldek-Richardson, the founder of the Turkish American Repertory Theater. “I think that unity is very important, especially right now.”

Didner too sees a special resonance with his theater’s Jewish heritage.

“We certainly know what the end result of dictatorship and of antisemitism and fascism are. We know that better than anybody else in the world, probably,” he said.

““There’s also something I think inherent to the Jewish character that calls for a democratic process. It’s inherent in the way that we historically involve more democratic processes even in the Talmud. It’s by committee and by discussion and by interpretation. It’s not one person declaring how we are to interpret the law, but it’s about building consensus.”

The Berkeley Repertory Theatre debuted its own audio adaptation of the Sinclair Lewis classic as a radio play on Oct. 13. In its first week, the play attracted listeners in 15,000 households, with 105 national broadcast partners contributing to its wide dissemination.

The audio production was adapted by Tony Taccone and directed by Lisa Peterson. It is available for free on Berkeley Rep’s YouTube channel through Nov. 8.

Berkeley Rep performed “It Can’t Happen Here” as a stage play in 2016.

J. Staff contributed to this report.

Josefin Dolsten
Josefin Dolsten

JTA Staff Writer

JTA

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