From left: Crystal Brown, Melissa Clason and Carol Braves in a 2017 production of Jamie Greenblatt's "Female, Ashkenazi With a Sewing Machine." (Photo/Jim Norrena)
From left: Crystal Brown, Melissa Clason and Carol Braves in a 2017 production of Jamie Greenblatt's "Female, Ashkenazi With a Sewing Machine." (Photo/Jim Norrena)

Cast your vote: annual Jewish Playwriting Contest comes to Bay Area

A family of Jewish women connect over their shared grief and love of baking. A haredi woman adopts a biracial child after her marriage falls apart. A small-town Iowa synagogue welcomes a surprising visitor.

These are the stories that unfold in three new plays competing in this year’s international Jewish Playwriting Contest. And on May 21 at Congregation Beth Am, local theater lovers will be able to experience a taste of each — “Madeleines” by Bess Welden, “To Reach Across a River” by Marshall Botvinick and “Tree of Life” by Victor Wishna — and vote for their favorite.

“I describe the event as a combination of a TED Talk, a play reading and ‘American Idol,’” said David Winitsky, artistic director of the Jewish Plays Project, which sponsors the contest. Winitsky will kick things off by talking about the state of contemporary Jewish theater. Afterward, seven local actors will perform 20-minute dramatic readings from the plays, and audience members will use their smartphones to vote for the play they wish to see produced.

The contest received 250 submissions this year, and works by three playwrights with Bay Area ties were among the top 20 selections: Daniel Holzman’s “BERLINDIA!,” Jamie Greenblatt’s “Female, Ashkenazi With A Sewing Machine” and Nigel Berkeley’s “simply so much night.”

Daniel Holzman
Daniel Holzman

Holzman, 23, grew up in San Francisco and graduated from NYU’s playwriting program last year. He called his play — in which a character based on his mother becomes obsessed with techno and moves to Berlin — “crazy and absurd” and told J. he appreciated that the Jewish Plays Project is “taking chances on fun, strange things.” (His play is also a finalist in the Bay Area Playwrights Festival; the winners will be announced on May 15.)

Greenblatt’s play, which follows a Jewish woman on a journey of self-discovery after she is diagnosed with ovarian cancer, was first staged at Berkeley’s Inferno Theatre Co. in 2017. Jewish Plays Project readers called it a “poetic story of grace, love, and imagination.”

Jamie Greenblatt
Jamie Greenblatt (Photo/Charley Lerrigo)

Greenblatt, who lives in Berkeley, told J. the play is based on her own experience with cancer. “I would love for the play to gain a wider audience than the tiny one it had when it was first staged,” she said.

The top three vote-getters at several regional competitions, including the one at Beth Am, will make it to the final round of the Jewish Playwriting Contest, which will be livestreamed next month on the Virtual JCC platform. The winning play will be produced in New York City. Over the years, several finalists have also been produced.

“Our ultimate goal is to get these plays produced on mainstream stages around the country, and I’m very proud to say that this spring, there are six plays that the JPP has developed that are in production,” Winitsky said. “Trayf,” a 2016 finalist, recently completed a monthlong run at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles.

Since its founding in 2011, the Jewish Plays Project has developed 53 plays, and 33 of them have been staged across North America, as well as in the U.K. and Israel. This is the seventh year that the international contest has been held on the West Coast. Other Jewish communities that are participating are in Chicago; Houston; Fairfax, Virginia; and Ra’anana, Israel.

11th Annual Jewish Playwriting Contest

4:30 p.m. Saturday, May 21 at Congregation Beth Am, 26790 Arastradero Road, Los Altos Hills. Free, registration required. jewishplaysproject.org/siliconvalley

Andrew Esensten
Andrew Esensten

Andrew Esensten is the culture editor of J. Previously, he was a staff writer for the English-language edition of Haaretz based in Tel Aviv.