She pronounces it “Namaaajjh,” like a French perfume, but’s it’s really the National Museum of American Jewish History (initials NMAJH), and she is Martha Graham Cracker, local performance artist who, as artist in residence, created and performed a cabaret based on her encounters with the museum exhibits.
For a few nights this week, the fifth floor exhibit space of NMAJH was transformed into Martha’s cabaret. Scattered on table tops were items from her personal collection—rubber bands, a sausage, an oversized powder puff. Many are used or explained during the performance as Martha brings us into her skewed world in which she had encounters with famous Jewish composers through history, particularly Leonard Bernstein, with whom she had “a limited engagement.”
Starting last year the museum created an artist in residence program, OPEN for Interpretation, inviting local cutting-edge artists to, as Martha’s collaborator and Musical Director Andrew Nelson put it, “run amok in the museum.” The intention was to give visitors a new way of looking at the exhibits. After all, museum exhibits are static, it’s what the visitor brings to them that makes an impact.
“Our goal was to invite creative thinkers into the museum to produce creative work,” says Emily August, Director of Public Programs. “The artists’ job is to find something that resonates with them in the Museum and bring it to life for our visitors in new and perhaps unexpected ways through their unique artistic lens. The content is inherently Jewish, although the artists may not be.”
The first year, two Philadelphia-based visual artists, Keir Johnston and Ernel Martinez, developed a textile installation as part of their Hemmed Up project. This year’s expanded program invited Martha Graham Cracker, a Philadelphia-based hairy drag queen and song stylist, along with Nelson to see what the museum evoked for them.
What resonated with Martha, in the guise of her alter ego Dito van Reigersberg, actor and a co-founder and co-artistic director of Pig Iron Theatre Company, and Nelson came from watching the PBS documentary Broadway Musicals: A Jewish Legacy. Most of the classical musicals it turns out were written by Jewish composers. Since time and space are irrelevant, what would be more natural than for Martha to explore her relationships with those composers? A portion of the show is devoted to Martha’s relationship with Bernstein, including a delightful moment, when wearing a wig on one hand and holding a microphone in the other, she portrays a car ride in the country, and you could almost believe he was there with her.
They found other points of access as well. Dito was taken by some of the strong women in Jewish History, the “gender warriors,” he calls them, like Jean Gornish, daughter of a Philadelphia chazzan (cantor), who in the 1930s took the stage name of “Sheindele di Chazante” and performed cantorial music on radio and stage because she was not allowed to sing in a synagogue, and Philadelphian Rebecca Gratz, who established the first Hebrew Sunday School in America, and who may have been the inspiration for the character by the same name in Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe.
Although raised Methodist, Nelson, musical director, bassist, and local musician, was surprised to note the Klezmer (celebratory music associated with Eastern European Ashkenazi Jews) roots of American show tunes and pop songs.
There were personal connections too. Raised a Catholic in Missouri with an assimilated mother and a father who had grown up in Holland, Spain, and Morocco, Dito’s connections to Judaism were mostly through friends so this was a new experience for him. But it turns out that Dito, and also Martha, had a Jewish mother which, according to the law of matrilineal descent still followed in Orthodox circles, makes them Jewish. In preparing for the cabaret, Dito interviewed his mother, and learned that her mother, his grandmother, had changed her daughters’ last name from Rositzky to Ross without even telling her husband. She wanted them to fit in in school.
Another topic of interest to Dito is assimilation, because he sees a connection between the Jewish community’s and the Gay community’s attempts first to fit in and now to reassert their unique group identity. There is, he said, a conflict between the American ideal of individualism and the desire to belong.
The show itself was a medley of songs, some familiar, some not, written for the most part by Jewish composers—Kurt Weill (September Song), George and Ira Gershwin (It Ain’t Necessarily So), Adam Levine of Maroon 5, “a tattooed Jew” (Sunday Morning), and Sid Siegel (My Bathroom from an Industrial Musical promoting bathroom fixtures).
In a red wig, a new color, she said, puffy eyelashes and a blue dress with stockings painted with Bernstein’s face, Martha was larger than life and yet surprisingly vulnerable. That’s her appeal. It was, however, a difficult room to work, being a bit cavernous with less than ideal acoustics, but she did an admirable job of filling the space—flitting from table to table, connecting with the audience in surprisingly intimate moments —a touch here, a dance with a stranger, a smile.
Martha is a consummate performer, so the audience left with smiles, but as an exploration of the artists’ relationship to the museum exhibits and their connection to Judaism, the show didn’t quite come together. The real miss was a connection of the performance to the place. In her home stage at L’Etage, Martha shares her experiences in an intimate way. Perhaps the larger space, perhaps the imposition of a theme, got in the way, but the routine felt a bit less natural. The real miss was a connection of the performance to the place. It would have been nice to know just who had written those songs and why Martha had chosen them.
Overall the project is a worthy attempt by the museum to stay relevant and by Martha to connect with a part of her heritage, making the process more transparent would have drawn the audience into the experience a bit more.
It’s High Time I Said Something: Martha Graham Cracker’s Intervention at the Museum, An original cabaret. December 3-6, 2014 at the National Museum of American Jewish History, corner of 5th and Market Streets, Philadelphia, PA (215) 923-3811 or www.nmajh.org