Who were the first Jews in Washington State? How were they able to assimilate into American and Washington culture? Why did they move here and what were their lives like day to day?
On June 2, the Washington State Jewish Historical Society (WSJHS) and Book-It Repertory Theatre will premiere “In the Land of Rain & Salmon: Jewish Voices of the Northwest, 1880-1920” at Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute.
“It’s a collaboration of everything we stand for — our whole mission is in this production,” said Lisa Kranseler, executive director of WSJHS. “It’s bringing awareness to Jewish history and that’s important.”
Kranseler anticipates the show will sell out.
“We expect it will be very popular,” she said.
That the performance will be at Lang-
ston Hughes is significant: In 1914, Chevra Bikur Cholim (now Bikur Cholim Machzikay Hadath) built the facility and used it as its synagogue until 1958.
“It’s a really big thing,” Kranseler said. “The Langston Hughes community welcomes our community.”
This original theater production is based on “Family of Strangers,” a 2003 book authored by Jacqueline Williams, Molly Cone and Howard Droker, which describes the history of Jews in Washington, and materials from the Jewish Archives at the University of Washington’s Special Collections library.
According to Annie Lareau, education director at Book-It, the staged reading combines several vignettes from historical moments in Washington State history that involve its various Jewish communities.
“We keep authors’ words intact,” she said. “They take place all over the state and include Sephardic and Ashkenazic stories, with violin music. Photos are also displayed during the performance.”
The theater contracts with organizations like the WSJHS frequently.
“WSJHS commissioned us to create a touring staged reading, where this can be done in big or small spaces,” Lareau said. “We’ve done this several times with different historical societies.”
Author Jacqueline Williams is pleased her book is being made into a performance.
“Book-It picked out six or eight people from the book and used the dialogues from the book and supplemented it with oral histories,” she said.
4Culture, an organization that advances cultural services in King County, partnered with WSJHS to make the performance happen.
“When I heard the WSJHS had the theme of ‘Jews in Arts’ this year, and we talked about different ways of approaching it, we realized that theater-style was the one format the WSJHS would be most interested in,” said Eric Taylor, a senior staffer at 4Culture.
4Culture has helped put on other similar events.
“We have done this type of program before, starting in 2009 with commemorating Seattle’s first World’s Fair in 1909,” he said. “After the success of that program, we wanted to do something like it in the following years. In 2010 we did a performance to commemorate women’s suffrage in Washington State, which was also based on a book.”
In 2012 the performance commemorated the 50th anniversary of the World’s Fair.
Funding for this performance came from 4Culture and a Small and Simple grant from the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle, which will also allow the production to tour. The performance will hit the road early summer and tour until November or December, Laraeu said.
“I’m excited about this,” Williams said. “We [the authors] used to joke about it. Oh, this book would make a great movie — there’s drama and conflict.”