Taking the stage at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch for “The Rosenberg/Strange Fruit Project,” John Jiler, who wrote it and also stars in it, introduces it as “a true story, with a fanciful touch here or there.”
Those fanciful touches, though, are the ones that make the play a powerful one, and one that’s politically relevant for the current moment.
As you might guess, the “Rosenberg” in the title refers to Julius and Ethel Rosenberg — Jewish-American Communist Party members who were controversially executed for espionage nearly 70 years ago (June 19, 1953) — and their children. And “Strange Fruit” refers to the Civil Rights Era protest song, popularized by Billie Holiday, that was written by Abel Meeropol, who adopted (with his wife, Anne) the Rosenbergs’ sons Michael and Robert, after their parents’ death.
Jiler — who is joined onstage only by clarinetist and percussionist Lee Odom, in this show — makes his main character Robert Rosenberg/Meeropol, who was 6 when his parents died and later became an activist and lawyer. Jiler also plays a variety of other characters, including Judge Irving Kaufman, who presided over the Rosenbergs’ trial; Oveta Culp, a Cabinet member in the Eisenhower administration who takes an interest in the case; African-American activist and author W.E.B. Du Bois; and Billie Holiday herself, with whom Robert has an imaginary discussion. Jiler signifies the character he is playing at any given time through vocal and mannerism changes, and accessories: a scarf for Culp, for instance, and a hat and cane for Du Bois.
Under the direction of Margarett Perry, most of the characters are vividly depicted. Particularly memorable are Jiler’s sad-and-wise Holiday, and his Du Bois, who is portrayed with a self-confident strut and a biting wit.
“There’s the stink of racism about all of it,” Du Bois says of the Rosenbergs’ case, “and, believe me, these old nostrils are very finely attuned to it.”
Also, “I’m not saying that White America is full of ignoramuses — and I’m not saying it isn’t, either.”
The set design, by Jessica Parks, is simple but stylish, utilizing images that root the story in history. Odom’s playing adds texture and emotion; he sticks, mostly, to clarinet, which works well because of the instrument’s connection both to klezmer music, and jazz. “This is a story about two very distinct, different cultures, and this is the sound that weaves through both of them,” Jiler says as part of his introduction.
The details of the Rosenbergs’ lives are only lightly sketched, though a portion of the play when their goodbye letter to their sons is read is quite heartbreaking. Don’t expect, though, much in the way of details about the trial, or for Jiler to linger very long over the question of whether they were guilty or innocent.
Abel Meeropol, who teaches in high school and writes poems as well as songs, is portrayed as self-deprecating, unpretentious and quite likeable. Robert is first shown as a child, and then as an adult trying to make sense of his past. An eternal optimist, he is forever working for causes he believes in and being tortured for the “real world” compromises he has to make at the law firm — run by more cynical lawyers — at which he works.
Cruel intolerance, meanwhile, is represented by Culp, a right-wing cultural warrior who pledges “We’re not going anywhere,” and by a political mentee of hers, who is seen giving a speech soon after her 1995 death and taking her racist and reactionary views even further. He argues, chillingly, that the most important thing in politics is not to help people, but to give them “someone to blame for it all.”
And so it becomes clear that Jiler did not become interested in this story because something extraordinary happened in 1953, but because the story continues to resonate, and the political cycles that were in play in 1953 continue to repeat.
“The Rosenberg/Strange Fruit Project” runs at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch through April 2. Visit njrep.org.
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