Melia Bensussen on Awake & Sing!

“Since her gorgeous, moving production of Luck of the Irish in 2011, I’ve wanted to bring director Melia Bensussen back to the Huntington to mount a classic. She has a great passion for Clifford Odets’ work — Awake and Sing! was Melia’s childhood, she once told me. Her talent for telling intimate family stories that play out on a broad social canvas makes now the perfect opportunity for her return.” - Peter DuBois

Melia Bensussen has directed Kirsten Greenidge's Luck of the Irish and Circle Mirror Transformation at the Huntington.  She will direct Clifford Odet's Awake and Sing! this fall.  She corresponded with director of new work Lisa Timmel about her personal connection to the play and what the play means to us in 2014.

Awake and Sing!, like much of Clifford Odets’ work, is steeped in a critique of capitalism, “Life shouldn’t be printed on dollar bills” is a refrain throughout the play. You bring a personal connection to the ideals of Jake Berger — would you mind telling me a little about it?

Like Jake, my family was very committed to the visions of the left. They were socialists and communists, idolizers of Emma Goldman and others. My parents were “red diaper babies,” a phrase that has all but disappeared from our culture, but a term that spoke to a family’s commitment to Communist (“red”) ideals. Nowadays, does anyone even want to hear the word “communist” anymore?

Odets’ gift for me, personally, in this work is that he places a Jewish family at the center of that very familiar struggle. There is a strong connection for me in their tones, their arguments: a fierceness about their existence and their struggle. We forget how marginalized Jews were in the 30s in this country, how radical it was to hear Yiddish on Broadway (most of which was excised from the Broadway production and some of which we hope to put back in to our production).

What draws you into the play emotionally?

Like Chekhov and Arthur Miller — I think Miller would not exist without Odets, and Odets would not have written these plays without Chekhov — Odets captures the complexities of intimacy and tension in a close-knit family. To find a balance between love, support, and selfinterest in any nuclear family has always been the stuff of great plays.

He is brutally honest about where generosity ends and self-interest begins: when is that a good thing, and when is that a wildly destructive impulse? I am struck by my empathy for these dragon moms — Bessie is a close relation to Amanda Wingfield from The Glass Menagerie — mothers who want, they say, what is best for their children but on some level are operating out of their own primal panics and fears. Their sons — Odets, Williams, and others — see clearly where these woman have led their families to survive, but have also led them to destruction. That is a hell of a balance for anyone to try and strike.

Group Theatre's world premiere production of Awake and Sing! (1935) and Odet's Waiting for Lefty (1935)

What do you think the play has to say to us in 2014?

I think the play portrays the emotional battlefields that ensue when economic pressures overwhelm. How can we love purely and generously when we are in constant danger of losing our homes, our savings? How do families today decide about college for their kids, if they are lucky enough to even have that as an option? Kids find they cannot leave their parents’ home for financial reasons, and so the claustrophobia and intensity of the nuclear family continues to exert its pressures. This against a more and more conservative society — the generations of this family sound so familiar to me: the grandfather hoping/wishing for the next generation to fight for equality and less economic disparity, for unions and the rights of the people. I find my son, who at 18 is now trying to fight against our generation’s lack of movement on the environment leads to some similar arguments in my household.

Like all of us, these people have huge struggles — the magnification of their battles to stay connected and viable in the world reflects a piece of what we all must feel at different points in our life as we try to be ethical people while protecting each other. “Awake and Sing all ye who dwell in the dust!” It’s a call to action and to waking up in the deepest sense of the word — to be sure to be aware of one’s life choices and possible positive impact on the world.

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