Imprisoned For Who She Was

Barbara Kahn fills in more of the Eve Adams story in ‘Island Girls.’

12/24/2013
Special To The Jewish Week
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She paid a tremendous price for her embrace of an unconventional lifestyle. Eve Adams, the Polish Jewish, lesbian owner of a Jazz Age tearoom in Greenwich Village, ended up in a women’s penitentiary before being deported to France, and ultimately murdered in Auschwitz. New York playgoers are familiar with Adams’ arrest, as well as her forced exile in Europe, thanks to two works by prolific playwright Barbara Kahn, “The Spring and Fall of Eve Adams” and “Unreachable Eden.”

Now Kahn’s latest work, “Island Girls,” co-written with Noelle Lusane, fills in Adams’ time in the Women’s Workhouse on Welfare Island (as Roosevelt Island was called at the time). Lusane composed the music, and appears in the cast. With Steph van Vlack returning once again as Adams, the play runs in January at the Theater for the New City in the East Village.

Directed by Kahn and Robert Gonzales, Jr., “Island Girls” has two interlocking plots, with fictionalized characters in addition to Adams.

In one plot, a young upper-class social worker, Nell Vandenburg (Anna Podolak), is assigned to the prison, where she falls in love with Adams and tries to help her as she faces deportation for obscenity, on account of her book of stories titled “Lesbian Love.” In another plot, an African-American former Cotton Club performer, Bessie Harper (LuSane), who was arrested after being brutalized by a group of men, dreams of getting out and making it big in Hollywood. 

In an interview, Kahn told The Jewish Week that her initial focus in writing the play was on Adams and actress Mae West, who was imprisoned along with her, albeit for a much briefer period of time — eight days as opposed to 18 months. But because West’s life and career are so much better known, Kahn decided to keep the spotlight on Adams. 

One of the social workers who attempted to aid the prisoners, Kahn said, recalled in her memoir that the penitentiary “had no color; the women had no hope.” Kahn added that most of the women “had everything stacked against them from the time that they were born.” Adams’ foreign roots, Jewishness and sexual preference were all liabilities at a time of intense isolationism, anti-Semitism and homophobia.

Adams regretted having been open about her sexuality. As she testified at her deportation hearing, held at the prison in 1927, “Had I known that by telling the truth of these so-called unfortunate people that God has chosen to create different, that I was committing a crime against this country which I love with my heart and soul. … Had I known it was a crime, I would not have told the truth.”

“Island Girls” runs from Jan. 9 to 26 at the Theater for the New City, 155 First Ave. (at Tenth Street). Performances are Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., and Sundays at 3 p.m. For tickets, $12, call SmartTix at (212) 868-4444 or visit www.smarttix.com.
 

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