Taking it to the street
Elmer Rice’s character drama Street Scene offers poignant commentary on politics and racism from another era
To most Americans with some sense of history, the year 1929 conjures up images of the stock market crash and the Great Depression. This is why CSUC Theatre Arts director Randy Wonzong has set his production of Elmer Rice’s 1929 Street Scene in 1928.
Street Scene premiered in January 1929, months before Wall Street’s Black Thursday. Being an able playwright but not a prognosticator, Rice couldn’t have been concerned about events to come, yet the old saw of “the more things change” seems to be proven out. Rice’s play went on to win the Pulitzer Prize, and the rest of the country went on, eventually, to a number of trials and tribulations—all the way to the more modern savings-and-loan debacle of the Reagan/Bush years and now the great Enron/Bush & Co. misadventure.
Born Elmer Leopold Reizenstein in New York City in 1892, Rice became a lawyer with an interest in theater and had his first play, On Trial, produced in 1914. His expressionistic play The Adding Machine (1923) featured a character called “Mr. Zero” and satirized the machine age.
Street Scene became an opera in 1947, with music by Kurt Weill and lyrics by Langston Hughes. Rice was also regional director of the N.Y. Federal Theater project in the ‘30s and wrote novels, essays and some 50 plays in all, but none match the achievement of Street Scene. He died in 1967.
In a telephone interview, Wonzong described Rice’s play as a “nice big slice of life.” The “big” refers to a cast of 30 actors playing about 68 characters living in or around a crowded Brooklyn tenement. The “nice” part found expression in J. Atkinson Brooks’ New York Times review of the original production: “Nothing in the play is so remarkable as [Rice’s] skill in catching nearly every significant trait of their common and individual character.”
In a steamy Brooklyn summer, various slices of life unfold: “a good Italian couple,” as Wonzong said, “a Swedish janitor, a good Irish cop.” There is a romance between Irish Rose Maurrant and the Jewish Sam Kaplan. A melodramatic incident occurs, precipitating reaction, but nothing takes away from the power of the play or the sweetness of character.
There is, as Wonzong put it, “a political activist, an old Jewish guy who talks about capitalism and the need for some sort of reform against greedy corporations, crooked politicians and the influence of Big Money. Now, doesn’t that all sound like 2002?”
If the political/economic scenery of 2002 resembles 1929, so too does the racist element. Specifically, in Rice’s play it appears as anti-Semitism, part of the ugly undercurrent of the nation. “If you want to see the Walt Disney version of the American melting pot,” Wonzong said, “you’d better forget it. This is the melting pot the way it was.”
Wonzong also stressed the ensemble aspect of the play: While there are larger parts, there are no stars, and all the actors function as integral parts of Rice’s large vision.
Part of that vision, and of the way it was in New York, involved the elevated train that rumbles through Wonzong’s production, generating “about 80 sound effects,” causing the lights to blink and the characters to pause their conversation while waiting for the train to pass. Marty Gilbert’s design of a two-story tenement provides the setting for this particular slice of life.
As Wonzong writes in his director’s notes, “Capitalism is waiting off in the wings, eager to exploit their labor and deny them their dreams,” yet it is the “the personal dramas (and melodramas) [that] capture our attention and illuminate the play.”
Meaty stuff for student actors—character, politics, racism—and part of the value of educational theater: keeping alive our history, which contrasts drastically to our real-life current drama of President Bush’s move to control history by blocking access to presidential papers.