Role returns actress to her once-hidden roots

Role returns actress to her once-hidden roots

Genevieve Allenbury plays a Jewish emigre in rediscovered play

Friends in Zambia, 45 years ago, Genevieve Allenbury, left, and Elaine Durbach had no idea they shared Jewish roots.
Friends in Zambia, 45 years ago, Genevieve Allenbury, left, and Elaine Durbach had no idea they shared Jewish roots.

An actor portraying a Jew in an Off-Broadway production that ran in November was caught by surprise by her unexpected qualifications for the role.

London-based Genevieve Allenbury played a Polish immigrant in the John Osborne play Personal Enemy, part of the annual Brits Off Broadway festival that brought a cluster of British productions to New York.

I went to see the play and spoke to Allenbury about her Jewish journey.

Written in 1953 by Osborne and Anthony Creighton, Personal Enemy is a very early work by the writer later acclaimed for plays like Look Back In Anger. The work skewers the anti-communist and anti-gay panic in postwar America — and uncomfortably echoes the posturing of our just-completed electioneering.

Because of its references to love between men, the play was so heavily censored for its first production, it died a quick death. All copies of the manuscript disappeared — except one, discovered by chance in 2008 in the Lord Chamberlain’s archives in the British Library. Fully restored, it was staged by the Fallout Theatre Company in London earlier this year.

The character played by Allenbury provided the production’s one warm-hearted touch of light relief. As she says in her still-heavy Polish accent, refusing to cave in when the McCarthyite witch hunt closes in on her too: “Me, an outcast? — I never was ‘in-cast,’ so why worry?”

Despite her background as an Anglo and a Christian who grew up in colonial Zambia, Allenbury was praised for the authenticity of her accent.

“I’ve had Poles come up and ask which part of Poland I come from,” she told NJJN with evident delight. Though the script has some rough edges that a more mature Osborne might have smoothed out, she said, for her the role captured the outsider experience of so many Jewish immigrants over the years.

‘I feel Jewish’

She knew something of that stress. Her very Anglo last name was one her father assumed after he left his native Hungary. He and his wife, whom he’d met in Cyprus, settled in what was then northern Rhodesia and did their best to give their only child the most Anglo identity they could.

As comfortably as she blended with the children of British colonial families, Allenbury said, she remembers being particularly comfortable with the small cluster of Jewish kids. “I used to love going to Saturday morning services with them and to bar mitzva celebrations,” she recalled. In elementary school, in fact, her best friend was Jewish.

It wasn’t until her father died 15 years ago that she found out just why he had always been so encouraging of those particular friendships: Her mother told her that he was Jewish, and that because of the horrors he experienced during the Holocaust, he did his best to hide it and to save his child from the same danger.

“There had always been something that didn’t fit,” Allenbury said. “And this made all the pieces come together.”

She also discovered that her mother’s mother had been from Hungary, too, and was also a Jew — making Allenbury Jewish according to Halacha, or Jewish law. Long ago lapsed from her church membership, Allenbury said, her spiritual approach these days has little to do with formal religion, but the discovery deepened the affection she already had for Jewish values and traditions — and food. “I feel Jewish inside,” she said.

Though that childhood best friend had never guessed this secret, when she heard, it all made sense to her too. I can vouch for that: I was that friend.

We reconnected a few years ago, after four decades apart, by complete and utter accident, on the Internet. And last month, by deliberate and delighted design, we at last met in person, on East 59th Street in New York City, at the theater where was portraying a wonderful Jewish character.

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