Cranston playwright shines a spotlight on Soviet Jews

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Cranston playwright Kevin Olson turned his longtime interest in the plight of Soviet Jewry into two plays that shed light on the topic by focusing on a family’s struggles in the former Soviet Union.

Olson, 61, said he was inspired to write the plays after his sister-in-law sent him a link to a website, appledoesnotfall.com, started by Soviet émigré Bena Shklyanoy to tell about her family’s experiences in emigrating to the United States.

Olson, who had started a small theater company in Rhode Island, FirstHand Theatrical, approached Shklyanoy, of Chicago, about doing a play about those experiences. Ultimately, their collaboration led to two plays, “How Many Bushels Am I Worth?” and “And Then What?”  

The Black Box Theatre at AS220, 95 Empire St., Providence, will present “How Many Bushels Am I Worth?” Jan. 9-12.

Jewish Rhode Island recently interviewed Olson via email. The following Q and A has been edited for length.

How long have you been writing plays? Is that something you always wanted to do, or did you start writing later in life?

I began creating plays in 2011, after hearing my father, a retired Protestant minister, deliver what was probably his final sermon to a small congregation in rural Vermont, where he was the guest preacher. As I drove home to Cranston and I could not stop thinking about the brilliance of his farewell sermon and the need for more than the 20 or so folks in attendance to hear it.

That led to my working with my father to create a play using the text of that sermon, as well as his essays and poetry. The resulting work, “Interrupting the Sermon,” inspired me to continue writing plays based on family, cultural and social histories. I produced that first play in 2014 in Providence after deciding to establish a small theater company, FirstHand Theatrical. And, since some readers will wonder, I am Jewish.

A July 2018 story in The Chicago Jewish News stated that you collaborated with Soviet émigré Bena Shklyanoy on two plays, “How Many Bushels Am I Worth?” and “And Then What?,” which was shown in 2017 in Providence. Is the play to be staged in January the one shown two summers ago in Illinois?

In Providence and in New York City, we will present “How Many Bushels Am I Worth?” It is a companion piece to “And Then What?” Both plays were presented in Chicago in August 2018; “And Then What?” came to Providence in 2017 as a staged reading.

The two plays are eyewitness accounts of a Russian-Jewish family’s experiences from the pre-Bolshevik and Soviet eras to the 1970s’ wave of immigration to the United States. How did you come to contact Shklyanoy and eventually wind up collaborating with her?

My sister-in-law, Paula Goldberg, got a call from one of her cousins, Deanna Shoss, who was working with Bena Shklyanoy. Bena and Deanna, who both live in the Chicago area, were about to launch a website [appledoesnotfall.com] that shared an extensive history of Bena’s family, going back 150 years.

Bena had spent 11 years networking and searching archives in the former Soviet Union to gather information for the website. She also contacted numerous cousins and other distant relatives from around the globe to learn their stories and undertake this extraordinary and extensive family history.  

Deanna asked Paula for feedback on the website prior to launch. Paula then forwarded me the link, correctly thinking that I might have some insights and reactions. After a skim, I became quite interested in contacting Bena about working together to craft a play from some of the material. We ended up collaborating on two plays.

The same Chicago Jewish News story mentioned that you worked with Soviet Jewish immigrants while you were the arts director for the Jewish Community Center in St. Paul, Minnesota. Talk about that experience, and how it influenced your work with Shklyanoy. 

One of the events I helped organize in the mid-1990s at the St. Paul JCC was a Sunday afternoon festival that showcased the culture, history and talents of those Jews who had immigrated to St. Paul through the Save Soviet Jewry movement. I was especially struck by the World War II medals many of those in attendance wore that day. I wondered, “Jews fighting for Stalin?” Of course, I learned they were fighting against Hitler.

As a result of that event, I sought a forum to bring together Soviet-Jewish and American-Jewish World War II veterans, Holocaust survivors and individuals who served the Haganah [defense force] in Palestine. I wanted people of diverse backgrounds to share their Jewish experiences during the World War II years with our community.

For a variety of reasons, I was never able to put that program together. But I did end up creating a play about those diverse experiences, titled “This Is My Story: Mayses, 1938-1948,” which was produced in 2016 by the Arts and Culture Program at the URI Feinstein Providence campus.

The Chicago paper’s story quoted you as saying that the play “is my attempt to bring the stories of individual Soviet Jews to create some awareness and education around what it was like for this particular population.” Was the play personal in any way for you; in other words, do you have any relatives who are Soviet émigrés?

Other than my interest in the subject, there was nothing personal with regard to family for me. Both sides of my wife’s family came to the United States from Germany and Eastern Europe well before the Holocaust. I would add, however, that on a personal level I was attracted to Bena’s stories because they touch on such universal themes as identity, values and solidarity, making those stories relevant in considering contemporary immigration issues.

The title of the play “How Many Bushels Am I Worth?” comes from a U.S. trade deal with the USSR through which the Soviets got grain from the United States in exchange for the release of Soviet Jews. Do you think such a deal would stand a chance of being approved today, given the heightened tensions and the effect of social media on politics and diplomacy?

As one aspect of a trade deal, the United States agreed to send much-needed wheat to the Soviet Union in exchange for allowing Soviet Jewish emigration; a genuinely shining moment in American immigration history. I am no scholar on the subject. Yet the successful collaboration of government, social service infrastructure, charities, benefactors and individuals is a model of how we might rescue refugees facing oppression around the globe today.

Imagine how social media can be used in positive ways to enhance such collaboration. But with today’s political climate, I wish I were hopeful that this could be achieved. 

How important is it to bring the plight of the Soviet émigrés from the Cold War era to light at this time?

Events surrounding the world wars, the Cold War and the fall of European nationalism in the 20th century shape our world today. Facts are under attack as 20th-century history fades into the past. To counter those realities as we approach the third decade of the 21st century, I believe that we should share as many stories as possible about actual events and their effect on people’s lives. Clearly, educators have a key role. However, it seems that the work of artists of all disciplines is essential as well. Our play offers both an educational and artistic window into the history it presents.

LARRY KESSLER (lkessler1@comcast.net) is a freelance writer based in North Attleboro.