This week my play Delimax -- about a Holocaust survivor and a Quebec separatist trapped in a Jewish delicatessen during a Montreal ice storm -- completes a 32-year journey from near suffocation in the bottom drawer of my ancient desk to a Toronto stage.
I'm 70 now, but my first production, Yossel's Music, was picked up back in 1983 by Vancouver's Studio 58 to cap a well-received evening of one-acts. My next, a one-man show entitled Lautrec, had an extended run at the Waterfront Theatre on Granville Island and a provincial tour that same summer. I was on my way.
I got the idea for my next play a couple years later during a visit to my native Montreal where I ended up at the Snowdon Delicatessen, a place I used to frequent back in high school.
Noticing the name had been changed to DeliSnowdon, I asked the owner why and he said that the language police had been by and told him that he had to change the sign. The establishment had been started in 1946 by Joe Marantz. I asked why not Joe's Deli. "No apostrophe en Français" they said. "DeliSnowdon un mot."
At that moment, a customer in the next booth said, "It's just like the Nazis are coming back."
That brief exchange sparked the idea for my next play. So I went to the Cummings Senior Centre in Montreal and spoke with Holocaust survivors, many of whom echoed the fears of that customer in the deli, and spent days researching at the Montreal Holocaust Memorial Centre Library.
I set the play in Delimax, on the night of a huge winter storm during which the owner's waitresses boyfriend, a vehement separatist and Holocaust denier, confronts the deli owner and former Auschwitz survivor. When the boyfriend says "you Jews know nothing about oppression," Max, with the aid of a fellow survivor, decides to teach the young firebrand a lesson.
Although most of my career had been spent running high school theatre programs, I was invited in 1984 to teach a playwriting course and earn a masters degree in theatre at Western Washington University in the U.S. My mentor and thesis advisor Dennis Catrell loved Delimax, staging the play and entering it in the American College Theatre festival where it was a regional finalist and won a prize for original scripts.
I also submitted the script to many theatres in my own country but it was deemed too controversial for a Canadian venue.
I went back to teaching and writing and through the years had a number of other plays produced, but Delimax remained in my bottom drawer.
A few years ago I found myself at a conference for Jewish Theatre artists and producers in New York, where my writing caught the attention of Ari Weisberg, artistic director of Teatron Jewish Theatre in Toronto who asked me to submit some of my work. I dusted off Delimax, which had once again become timely.
History has a way of repeating itself. When Pauline Marois bought out the Charter of Values as a part of her election platform last year, friends who had stayed the course in their beloved Montreal began to fear for their place in the province. Though I'd left Montreal in 1970, before the "October Revolution," to teach theatre in B.C., 'La Belle Province' has always been and remains my home.
However, my generation of Jews -- I was born in 1944 -- was raised on the horrors of the Holocaust. There wasn't a Jewish family in Montreal who hadn't suffered a loss.
The wounds of that era were still raw, even 40 years after the horrific events.
I knew many children of survivors whose parents never lived a normal life. I even interviewed some of those victims.
Both my wife and I are bilingual and strong believers that it is the duality of Canada that makes it such a wonderful place to live. Both of my children were educated in French immersion schools and are bilingual as well. My son-in-law is a French Canadian from Shawinigan and both his children are enrolled in Francophone schools.
The protagonist and antagonist in my play are individuals. The issues brought out by the play may be universal but the characters have been formed by their difficult past and therefore their reactions to the situation in which they find themselves on the night of that terrible storm are, to them, reasonable and just.
There was justification in the 70s for the feelings of the French population of Quebec that they had not been "maîtres chez eux" (masters in their own house) but that is no longer the case. The French language is entrenched in Quebec society and hopefully will continue to grow throughout our nation.
I believe that today, most Quebecers feel they're a part of a nation, not apart from a nation. Certainly, the results of the 2014 election reflect that. This play mirrors a part of our shared history and I'm proud to finally see it in Canada.
Delimax is on at the Studio at the Centre for the Arts in Toronto from January 7 - 18.
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