Love In Black And White (And Jewish)

‘Sam’s Romance’ explores the 1950s relationship between a middle-aged Jewish man and his young African-American employee.

06/14/2011
Special To The Jewish Week
Ed Kershen and Oni Brown in “Sam’s Romance.”
Ed Kershen and Oni Brown in “Sam’s Romance.”

Loneliness, as an old Jewish proverb says, breaks the spirit. In Paul Manuel Kane’s new play, “Sam’s Romance,” set in Greenwich Village in the early 1950s, an awkward middle-aged Jewish housewares/hardware store owner, Sam (Ed Kershen) falls for his 20-year-old African-American female clerk, Natalie (Oni Brown). But Sam’s cousin Rose (LeeAnne Hutchison) — who is trapped in an unhappy marriage with a wounded vet, Joe (Todd Licea) has another agenda for her cousin — involving her brassy friend Luba (Neva Small). The play is in an open run at the Actors Temple Theater.

Directed by Hillary Spector, “Sam’s Romance” is the latest in a number of plays about black-Jewish relations to hit the boards Off-Broadway in just the past several months. Lian Amaris’ one-woman show, “Daddy’s Black and Jewish,” about Julius Lester (her famous dad), appeared at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe in February. Veronica Page’s “Prayers for the Ghetto,” which dealt with the traumatic legacies of the Holocaust and slavery, premiered last fall and ran again at the Producers Club in March. And Jason Odell Williams’ “Baltimore in Black and White,” a comedy about a white girl marrying a black man in 1980s Baltimore, was performed in May at the Cell Theater in Chelsea.

Kane is a retired New York City public school teacher who grew up in South Philadelphia as the son of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. Among his other plays are “Five New York Stories,” an evening of short plays set both in the city and in the Catskills; “Duet on the Piano,” about a woman who runs a boarding house in Atlantic City and “Red Wing,” about an Arizona man who hates American Indians. “Sam’s Romance” takes the interracial relationship between Sam and Natalie as an emblem of the period leading up to the turbulent 1960s, during which blacks and Jews both collaborated and collided with each other.

The title character in “Sam’s Romance,” the playwright told The Jewish Week, is “polite, kind, gentle and clean-cut but a little overbearing because he’s socially backward. He finds this one little flower that he’s attracted to, but he’s ridiculed by the other characters who say that she’s the only thing that he can get.” Because a relationship between a Jewish man and a black woman was socially unacceptable at the time, the central question of the play, according to the playwright, is whether or not these characters can “break the barrier” imposed by a racist American society.

Kane said that he finds many contemporary plays lacking, in that “they are political and moral-minded in a very abstract way.” By contrast, his plays “use a lot of colorful phrases and stories” in dealing with the aching need that human beings have for each other.

“It’s the Jewish folksy play that I’m in love with,” Kane explained, noting that his own favorite playwright is Clifford Odets. “The oversimplified language, a few Yiddishisms, a homespun philosophy — there’s always a wrong decision versus a right decision, the family is the most relevant and the ending always has a suggestion of better times.”

 “Sam’s Romance” runs at the Actors Temple Theater, 339 W. 47th St. Performances are Thursday and Saturday evenings at 8 p.m., with matinees on Wednesday afternoons at 3 p.m. and Sunday afternoons at 2 p.m. For tickets, $36.50-$59.50, call Telecharge at (212) 239-6200 or visit www.telecharge.com.

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