Shedding light on violence in the shadow of tragedy

Shedding light on violence in the shadow of tragedy

New play at Luna Stage can be ‘gateway to empathy’

David Winitsky, left, works with actor Rafael Poueriet, who plays a student trying to reclaim his life in the aftermath of tragedy. 
Photos courtesy Luna Stage
David Winitsky, left, works with actor Rafael Poueriet, who plays a student trying to reclaim his life in the aftermath of tragedy. Photos courtesy Luna Stage

Gun violence has become one of the most painful, divisive issues facing Americans, and that’s precisely why Luna Stage in West Orange has tackled the subject in its new production, “The Assignment,” which opens on Nov. 29.

The play, written by Camilo Almonacid, depicts a coming together of two characters: Helen, a college professor who has experienced a terrible loss, and Julian, an undergraduate with a troubled background. Both are on the edge of despair as they try to deal with what they have endured.

Luna Stage artistic director Ari Laura Kreith selected the play because, she said, “we’re all raw; we can’t pretend that what’s happening isn’t happening.” On both the national and the “hyper-local” level, people are hurting but face a seemingly unbridgeable divide when it comes to seeking solutions, Kreith told NJJN, “and when reason can’t show the way toward healing, sometimes art can provide a gateway to empathy.”

Even as they were rehearsing the play, the nation was hit with more mass shootings.

For the director, David Winitsky, a former Maplewood resident who now lives in Philadelphia, the Oct. 27 Shabbat massacre in Pittsburgh hit particularly close to home. The Tree of Life synagogue is where his wife grew up and where they were married. “I was just there for Yom Kippur,” he wrote in an e-mail interview with NJJN. “My father-in-law would have been in that building had he not been five minutes late because he was talking to a friend. I knew six of the people killed that day, and it’s the first time that I’ve ever lost anyone this way.

“These have been hard weeks at my house, and the question we’ve been asking is, ‘What happens when we go back? What happens with all of this endless AFTER time?’”

That’s the central dilemma of “The Assignment,” he said. “Once your life has been forever altered by violence, how do you find a way forward? And today, that’s a question everyone in America has to ask.”

A play like “The Assignment” asks those questions implicitly, Winitsky said adding that he sees a “subtextual” Jewish dimension to the play’s themes.

David Winitsky, director of “The Assignment,” a new play at Luna Stage, says his own grief over the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting has informed this story of recovering from violence.

“Jewish life proposes that humans are free to do anything,” he said. “We are on our own to find and live a moral life. When we discover it, in our families, in our art, in our communities, it is truly a miracle and something more beautiful than we could have imagined.

“But,” he added, “the corollary to that is that there is nothing preventing us from committing evil…. God allows us to do unspeakable things to each other and to ourselves….”

That has a clear practical upshot for Jews — “first to work incredibly hard to make sure that no one has the capability to do something like this. If God gives us the freedom to do evil, let us respond by limiting its power.

“That’s the Jewish call to gun control,” Winitsky wrote. “We MUST take these weapons out of our society. We made them. God did not make them. We have to be responsible for them.”

The play brings this forth in a sometimes humorous and deeply moving way. “We are called to continue to reach out to each other — in pain and in joy — so that no person gets so far away from the rest of the humanity that they can fall into these evil acts,” said Winitsky. “That’s the Jewish call to make an equitable world where no one feels so isolated or angry that they would want to cause this kind of harm.”

Though he didn’t grow up observant, Judaism has become central for Winitsky. He is the founder and director of the Jewish Plays Project (JPP), which strives to put “bold, progressive Jewish conversations on world stages.” The project — which was based at JCC MetroWest in West Orange for its first three years, starting in 2011 — does so by fostering writers and productions of new works with explicitly Jewish themes. JPP is based in Philadelphia.

“We all wear multiple identity hats,” Winitsky told NJJN. “The question at the JPP is: What does it mean when I am wearing my Jewish hat? How does it affect my life, and, hopefully, how does it make it better?”

Winitsky said he didn’t know if the Pittsburgh attack by itself would change the perspectives of the playwrights involved with the JPP, “but I certainly know that many of our JPP writers are thinking differently about Jewish identity these days. For many of us, we have lived lives free from external boundaries on our Jewishness — in America no one has tried to place a limit on what we can do as Jews, where we can be, and how we fit into the national landscape.”

But today, he said, “it feels like there is an attempt by some people to reassert some ancient limits on Jewishness, to police it and to contain it — and of course to threaten it. That’s something new for the young writers the JPP works with.”

He would like to see that reality itself reflected in their work. “I am encouraging our artists to grapple with the ways that this changes them and their behavior in the world,” said Winitsky.

“I don’t sit up nights afraid of anti-Semitism, but I do think that its presence gives us a chance to test the boundaries of our own sense of Jewish life. If we treat it right, that’s an opportunity.”

If you go

What: “The Assignment,” a play by Camilo

Where: Luna Stage, West Orange

When: Nov. 29-Dec. 9

Tickets: $24-$59

Information:  Call 973-395-5551 or visit

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