Having her say
Emily Mann, McCarter Theatre’s exiting artistic director, on faith and activism
Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News
Emily Mann made a name for herself showcasing the work of women and people of color.
The artistic director of the McCarter Theatre in Princeton since 1990, she recently announced that she would step down at the end of this season, causing a buzz throughout the theater community because of her national reputation as a groundbreaking director and playwright.
Less well known about Mann is that she ascribes her fierce embrace of social and political activism in her work to her Jewish roots.
“When I was a little kid, the Passover seder shaped my world view in so many ways,” she said. “Because we were in slavery, we know that no one can be free if anyone is enslaved.”
On a rainy afternoon in the bar area of McCarter’s Roger S. Berlind Theatre after a rehearsal of “Gloria: A Life” (the play about feminist icon Gloria Steinem, written by Mann, premiered off-Broadway last fall and closes Oct. 6), Mann talked with NJJN about how Judaism weaves in and out of her life, but never leaves her psyche.
In particular, she thinks deeply about anti-Semitism, evil in the world, her identity, and the Jewish obligation to pursue justice. On that subject, she believes it’s no coincidence that Jews in large numbers participate in social justice movements, such as advocacy for the rights of immigrants and refugees. She sees this kind of work not as optional but as a moral imperative.
“If your empathy for others is dull, then you should be thrown out of the temple,” she said.
Mann describes herself as “a cultural Jew, not religious,” and said her Jewish background “informs everything” about her work. Sometimes that influence is obvious, as in her work with themes touching on the Shoah; other times, it’s under the surface. It’s not difficult to draw a line directly to her embrace of other minorities and minority themes in her plays. After all, she told NJJN that her strong Jewish identity makes her feel like an outsider. “I don’t consider myself white; I consider myself a Jew,” she said
Sitting cross-legged in the Berlind Theater during rehearsal, Mann, a scarf wrapped around her shoulders and a cup of coffee in her hand, examined everything from the rhythm and pacing of the actors’ lines to music and lighting cues. Nothing has gone unnoticed. An onlooker gets the sense that no moment in a play directed by Mann is an accident, and that all her decisions and conclusions are carefully considered.
And she’s not shy about expressing her opinions, which are, more often than not, as thoughtful as they are challenging.
For instance, she told NJJN that she is disappointed that Jews in large numbers have not stepped up to donate to McCarter, which like most theaters, is always in need of financial support. “It’s very unusual,” for Jews not to give, she said. “Go to almost any theater in America, and half of the patron wall is Jewish.” That this is not the case at McCarter she ascribes to Jews who are “not philanthropic, unless it’s for Jewish causes” or who are “looking for entertainment and not to be challenged.”
When she arrived in Princeton in 1990, she said people didn’t realize she was Jewish and she was stunned at what they said around her. “I’d be at a party or at a fundraiser there with very, very wealthy people, and they’d say, ‘Oh, have you heard that so-and-so’s daughter is going to marry a Jew?’” she recalled. “I could tell you hair-raising stories about what I heard about black people and about Jews.”
Both the theater and Princeton, she said, have come a long way. While some of the plays throughout her tenure at McCarter have had Jewish characters or themes, most have not. She selects a play for the theater “because it resonates, because I love it, because it hits me in my gut,” she said. “It could be about Muslims, it could be about Jews, about black people; it could be about Koreans. It’s like, what is it as human beings that we learn and are moved by with this particular story?”
In her own writing the Holocaust frequently comes up. Three of her plays touch on themes involving the Shoah, and she is currently at work on a fourth, a staged adaptation of Polish composer Władysław Szpilman’s memoir, the subject of Roman Polanski’s 2002 film, “The Pianist.”
Mann surmises that her recurring interest in the Shoah stems from a childhood trip to several countries in Europe with her parents, during which she first read “The Diary of Anne Frank” and imagined herself in Frank’s shoes. Even so, she does not embrace Anne’s hopeful view of humanity. “I think when I was a younger liberal, I believed that, you know, all people were capable of goodness. I’m not so sure anymore,” she said. “I think that evil is real” and that some people are “irredeemable.”
Mann was raised in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago among intellectuals — her father was a professor of history at the University of Chicago — but not within a Jewish community, though they did belong to Kehilath Anshe Ma’ariv, now KAM Isaiah Israel. Still, her father, who had grown up in Brooklyn (she described her mother’s family as Orthodox) insisted that the young Emily learn about her Jewish tradition. So Mann attended Hebrew school through high school and said she always stayed after class to ask for more Jewish books to read. It had an impact. “I never moved away from it in my heart,” she said.
She earned an undergraduate degree from Radcliffe College (Harvard University) and a master’s of fine arts from the University of Minnesota. At age 22 she had a directing fellowship at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis and directed plays at regional theaters around the country before joining the McCarter when she was in her late 30s. Over the course of her career she has been nominated for two Tony Awards, won eight Obie Awards (among many others), and in 1994 the McCarter Theatre won a Tony for outstanding regional theater under her leadership.
She credits her father’s deep and lasting friendship with John Hope Franklin, author of “From Slavery to Freedom” and an icon in the African-American community, for her ability to connect with the Black community and take on its issues. “I had a lot of street cred,” she said.
In her first season at the McCarter she directed “Betsey Brown,” described as a rhythm and blues musical about civil rights that she wrote with the late Ntozake Shange featuring an all-black cast; she took on and premiered some of the plays of South African playwright Athol Fugard; and wrote and premiered “Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years.” She also mentored many young playwrights of color, including Tarell Alvin McCraney, whose “Brother/Sister Plays” are among Mann’s favorites from her tenure (though “Having Our Say” tops that list).
But she has some anxiety that a younger generation, more focused on ideas of cultural appropriation and less familiar with John Hope Franklin’s work, or her family’s close relationship with his, “might not give me the same pass.”
Mann does not currently belong to a synagogue (though she was a member of the Jewish Center in Princeton when she was raising her son), but she loves the music of the Kol Nidre service, and on this day, a few weeks in advance of Rosh HaShanah, she is looking forward to attending High Holiday services with family in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn. While many self-described “not religious” people consider this annual synagogue visit merely obligatory, she views it still as a time for introspection and meditation, a time to process a year that for her, with the loss of friends and her mother, has been difficult.
Looking back on her career as she prepares to step down, Mann said she’s proud of her work: bringing a contemporary lens to classic plays, putting women and people of color on the stage, and serving as a mentor for younger artists. But she’d like to make something clear:
“I’m not retiring.” Her time at McCarter is coming to a close and she’ll have more quality time to spend with her grandchild, but she still has “The Pianist” in the works and will continue mentoring young playwrights.
That last piece is particularly important to Mann because she feels that no one served that role for her. She can recall being told in college in the early 1970s, “You’re very talented but women can’t direct professionally in the American theatre. Perhaps you should think about children’s theatre.” At every step, she felt she was being blocked rather than helped, she said, so she has vowed to do the opposite.
In a pivotal moment in “Gloria: A Life,” the title character says, “We all have a role to play. Maybe my role is to help break this false stereotype.” The line could just as easily be spoken today by Mann. It’s a fitting play to raise the curtain on her final season at McCarter.