Black And Jewish, Searching For Home
02/15/2011
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How are children affected by a parent’s racial and religious identities? In Lian Amaris’ new one-woman play, “Daddy’s Black and Jewish,” which premieres next week in the East Village, the performance artist reflects on her relationship with her adoptive father, the radical black intellectual Julius Lester, who converted to Judaism in 1982.

Directed by Melissa Moschitto, “Daddy’s Black and Jewish” focuses on five “neuroses” having to do with racial, religious and sexual identity. In weaving together the disparate strands of her own identity, the playwright finds herself at home both everywhere and nowhere.

Amaris, who lives in Crown Heights, has degrees from NYU in both performance studies and multimedia. A former professor at Colorado College, she now organizes educational programs and trains docents at the Brooklyn Museum.

Over the last eight years, Amaris has also demonstrated considerable range and ingenuity as a performer. In 2007, she spent 72 hours living in a constructed Victorian boudoir on a traffic island on the southeast corner Union Square, where she prepared for a fictional date in full view of the public. And two years ago, she performed a monologue at the HERE Arts Center, directed by Richard Schechner, called “Swimming to Spalding” (based on Spalding Gray’s “Swimming to Cambodia”) that was praised by Backstage as a “riveting piece of theater” and “a powerful indictment of contemporary warfare.”

Lester was a socially conscious photographer, musician and writer who became a radio host for WBAI in New York during the Civil Rights era. He sprang into prominence during the Ocean Hill-Brownsville teachers’ strike, when he invited a black history teacher to read an anti-Semitic poem by a teenage student. The resulting controversy led Lester to repudiate his sentiments, and Lester ultimately decided to covert to Judaism.

Lester met and married Amaris’ mother, Milan Sabatini (his third wife), while he was teaching at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Amaris, who was 13 at the time of their marriage, found herself suddenly keeping kosher and going to synagogue on Friday nights, where her father served as cantor. Thus, while her father is black and Jewish, Amaris is white and not affiliated with any religion.

In an interview with The Jewish Week, Amaris noted that she has a “strange set of identifiers” that makes her “able to relate to almost anyone I meet.” At the same time, however, she feels like “a ship in search of an ideological port, constantly crossing borders but not really being able to stake a claim anywhere.”

“Daddy’s Black and Jewish” runs at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, 236 E. Third St., between Avenues B and C. Performances are next Wednesday, Feb. 23 through Saturday, Feb. 26 at 7 p.m. For tickets, $10, call the box office at (212) 780-9386 or visit www.nuyorican.org.

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