Alice Eve Cohen’s play, “Oklahoma Samovar,” tracks a family’s footsteps over five generations, from Latvia to Brooklyn, Kansas and Oklahoma. There are no stops on the Upper West Side, where Cohen lives — but the story likely resonated with the neighborhood’s Jewish community on Wednesday night, when it was performed at the Marlene Meyerson JCC during the two-day Festival of New Jewish Plays.
“The play has a lot to do with the complexities of identity — Jewish identity — and the complexities of assimilation,” she said. “And the complexities of antisemitism.”
“Oklahoma Samovar,” about Cohen’s ancestors’ participation in the 1889 Oklahoma Land Rush, is one of two winning plays to emerge from the 2021 National Jewish Playwriting Contest; as part of the JCC’s Festival of New Jewish Plays, in partnership with the Jewish Plays Project, it was directed by Eric Nightengale to be read by a cast of actors with scripts.
The pay-what-you-wish event on Wednesday, Nov. 30 and Thursday, Dec. 1 also featured readings of “Madeleines,” by 2022 Jewish Playwriting Contest winner Bess Welden and “A Moving Picture,” by 2020 Jewish Playwriting Contest winner Jennie Berman Eng.
“I cannot overstate how amazing it is to be bringing the JPP back to New York with these three brilliant playwrights,” said David Winitsky, artistic director for the Jewish Plays Project, in a statement.
Investigating the Past, In a Rocky Present
To write “Oklahoma Samovar,” Cohen excavated her own family history, which she explored also in her 2015 memoir “The Year My Mother Came Back.” Her ancestors, Jake and Hattie, fled Latvia as teenagers in 1887 to escape the Russian army. A few years later, they became “the only Jews in the Oklahoma Land Run,” according to Cohen — when settlers snatched up territory for themselves that had previously been intended for relocated Native American tribes. “It’s kind of a foundational story for me, so it’s gone through a lot of evolution,” she said. “It’s a story that I’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of.”
The play offers a fictionalized account; Emily, a college student, sets out to Oklahoma per the instruction of her late mother, who in a final note before her death alluded to a family network that hadn’t been passed down. Storytelling, community and identity are integral to what unfolds.
“Emily is a pre-law student; she’s rigorously looking for objective answers. Of course, there are no objective answers when you’re trying to look for meaning and discover what is important when the person you loved the most dies,” Cohen said. “There’s a lot of investigating the past while inventing it. There’s no way to know exactly what happened.”
In the present, the JCC festival kicked off in a rocky sociopolitical climate. The week prior, former President Donald Trump drew criticism for hosting rapper Ye, formerly known as Kanye West, and white nationalist Nick Fuentes — both of whom have spread antisemitic rhetoric online — at Mar-a-Lago, early on in his latest bid for the White House. A JCC spokesperson said the community center “does not comment on political matters.”
By the end of 2020, when Cohen learned that “Oklahoma Samovar” had been selected as one of 10 finalists in the upcoming year’s National Jewish Playwriting Contest, another concern had come to dominate the news cycle: COVID-19. At the start of the new year, she met with her fellow finalists over Zoom to read and analyze each others’ scripts.
Samplings of each play were shown in theaters across the U.S. and in Israel, where audiences voted for the winners. The JCC’s festival brought Cohen back to set in person for the first time since the pandemic began, she said.
A cast of six actors, plus one person to read stage directions, performed “Oklahoma Samovar” from behind music stands and with “minimal suggestive staging,” Cohen explained, on Wednesday night. Rehearsals spanned several weeks, allowing her to continue making revisions to the script. “It’s really important to hear real voices of real actors bringing characters to life,” Cohen said.
In her next play, the Upper West Side takes center stage. “Hotel Limbo” tells the story of the Hotel Belleclaire, which was repurposed during the pandemic as a temporary homeless shelter. It’s also Cohen’s longtime home.
“It’s a story that I’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of.” Alice Eve Cohen