“What can be found between the lines of our sacred texts?”
This question is one of many explored in artist Moriah Ella Mason’s new work Queer, Jewish WorkinProgress, an original dance-theater piece presented on April 11 at The Space Upstairs.
The work is built around Mason’s identity as a queer, Jewish Pittsburgher. It leans into the gaps left by sacred texts, interpreting stories, both traditional and personal, in the context of a “queer-Judeo-diasporic-futuristic aesthetic.”
Still in the early days of creation (Mason and the cast, Ru Emmons and Sarah Friedlander, have completed at least seven rehearsals), the work is a well-organized collection of concepts. A few ideas form the show’s foundation: an exploration of the richness of the people as a diaspora, Barbra Streisand as a Jewish and gay cultural icon, the narratives of Yiddish folklore, as well as the Torah and other religious texts.
Queer, Jewish is seeded in a piece Mason staged years ago called Funny, She Doesn’t Look Jewish, which reflected on anti-Semitic experiences during her childhood in Westmoreland County.
For the work-in-progress show, Mason adapted two stories: the invasion of Jericho and the story of Rahab, a Canaanite sex worker who aided the Israelites. The pieces explore discomfort with the ideas of boundaries, borders, and conquests.
“We’re going back to the texts, looking at the role of women and possible queer narratives and finding space for ourselves in between the lines of these texts,” Mason says. “I want to invite myself, and other Jews that have felt marginalized, into the space to participate in historic conversation, in an embodied way, in an envisioned way, in a poetic way.”
Mason, using historical garments and movements, also places the rituals in a modern framework, asking how they can be gifted to upcoming generations in new ways.
Streisand comes into play through movement. The star’s storylines, Mason emphasizes, are often intertwined with the concept of otherness. Streisand's work is a natural companion to Queer, Jewish. Dancers pay tribute to the star through gestures and ideas echoed from Streisand's films.
The final element in Queer, Jewish is community. It’s part of Mason’s identity, and the performance “feels only right to be wrapped up in community.” The artist plans to host post-show discussions for reflections and feedback. As the piece grows, Mason hopes to expand community involvement through workshops.
In August, Queer, Jewish will run as an evening-length show presented by off the WALL productions. It will be a mix of everything: ancient texts, folklore, pop culture, and autobiographical stories, set to original composition and spoken word.