John Feffer is a funny guy who is engaged in the somber business of writing and lecturing on foreign policy. But three years ago, he tried something new and stepped onto a Fringe stage with his original play, Krapp’s Last Power Point. He’s been back every year since. This year, he brings us The Bird.
Whenever I read memoirs, I skim through the early years and get easily bored as the memoirist edges into middle age. What happens in between interests me most, the 20-something period, that pivot point in a person’s life. How does a young person transform early opportunities or overcome early obstacles to become an adult?
My father, a child psychologist, was also interested in this question. His “one big idea” about child development figured in my play Edible Rex, which debuted at the 2010 Capital Fringe Festival. What he did in his twenties – joining the army, discovering that he didn’t want to fight after all, and becoming an expert poker player instead – laid the groundwork for his later insights into how children ultimately become adults.
In my new play The Bird, which will opens July 9th at this year’s Capital Fringe Festival, I return to my own twenties to show how my experiences in Poland in 1989 transformed my life.
I was 25 years old when I arrived in Warsaw in January 1989, and I was literally up for anything. After a sedate childhood in New Jersey, an uneventful four years at college, and an unpromising post-college stretch of work, I was desperate to go overseas and reinvent myself. It didn’t matter that I was arriving in a freezing communist country. I was not put off by the fact that my salary was $15 a month. I was not even discouraged that one of my first activities in Poland was to come down with pneumonia. The most important thing was that I was cold, sick, and poorly paid in a different country.
I was also very lucky. Two weeks after I arrived in Warsaw, the Polish government announced that it would begin negotiations with the previously outlawed Solidarity trade union movement. I could speak some Polish. I had already published some freelance articles. Here was a unique opportunity to watch history in the making and write about it.
Becoming a foreign correspondent was not, however, as easy as I imagined. My Polish was functional, not fluent, and Polish politics seemed to me truly Byzantine. I remember using an interpreter to interview one Solidarity activist. I told him beforehand that I spoke some Polish. But that didn’t prevent him from exclaiming in Polish after nearly every one of my questions, “My God, what a stupid question!” I would later learn that affecting ignorance is a trick that journalists use to extract information from interview subjects. At that time, though, genuine ignorance didn’t elicit any useful quotes.
I eventually seized on an article topic that I figured would be of interest back in the States: the status of Jews in Poland. There still was a small Jewish community in Poland that numbered in the low thousands. Several leaders of the Solidarity movement – Adam Michnik, Marek Edelman – came from Jewish families. More and more Poles were discovering their Jewish roots, which their parents had covered up either during World War II or in the successive waves of anti-Semitism that had washed over the country. The relationship between Poland and Jews has always been complicated. During the Middle Ages, King Kazimierz welcomed Jews to Poland. During World War II, Poles were the largest national group recognized as the Righteous Among the Nations for rescuing 30-35,000 Jews. But there were also many pogroms against Jews throughout Polish history.
By the 1980s, Poland had come to realize that the history of Judaism in Poland brought in lots of tourist dollars. The government publishing company put out a Polish Jewish cookbook with pictures featuring actors with fake beards and unappetizing entrees in glistening aspic. Busloads of Israeli and American Jews visited the Jewish theater in Warsaw, traveled to the dusty villages of their ancestors, and made the obligatory visit to Auschwitz.
In 1989, I decided to follow this pilgrimage route as well and write about how the Jewish community was reorganizing itself against all odds. It was just as I was planning this trip that I met Mary.
Mary was a graduate student who got my name from a friend of a friend. We hit it off immediately. I’d come to Poland for adventure, and here it was! Mary and I traveled together to Krakow to look at the old Jewish ghetto there. As we were walking along the cobblestoned street in the Jewish quarter, we came upon a bird lying on the street, surrounded by a crowd of tourists.
And that’s where The Bird begins.
When I started out in theater two years ago, I wrote, performed, and directed my own one-man show. I didn’t really choose to go solo so much as bow to the inevitable. I didn’t actually know anyone in the theater world, neither actors nor directors. So my first production, Krapp’s Last Power Point, was pure DIY, with my wife playing a supporting role and two friends on the lights and projector. For Edible Rex, I went from two characters to three and enlisted a director who not only could visualize the play but also teach me the finer points of acting.
This year, I am blessed with an excellent director (Doug Krehbel) and assistant director (Emma Strauss) who are integral parts of the production. It’s still only me up on the stage, but this time I’m playing seven different characters. I met a lot of interesting people in Poland 1989. This July, I’ll introduce some of them to you.
And, of course, I’ll also tell you what happened with Mary and that bird, and why it spelled childhood’s end.
The Bird runs for 5 performance, July 9 – 23, 2011 at the Goethe Institute, 812 7th St NW, Washington, DC.