Issue Date: October 13, 2006
Current social issues inspire 'Neglect'
By RETTA BLANEY
Sharyn Rothstein is working on her masters degree in public health at New Yorks Hunter College because she wants to be a playwright. While the logic of this might escape most, for a Jewish woman raised in a socially conscious family in northern Connecticut the two pursuits have a natural connection.
I see a theater production as the best form of social action, says Ms. Rothstein, whose play Neglect is running through Oct. 25 at the Bank Street Theater. I cant imagine living in a creative world thats divorced from social action. Im good at playwriting and I need something to write about.
Sitting at a table in a food court in Manhattan, Ms. Rothstein talks excitedly about her first major off-Broadway production. Wearing a purple T-shirt and jeans, with her brown hair pulled back in a ponytail, she looks like a college student taking a break between classes. This is probably because at 25 she isnt far removed from her undergraduate days as a sociology major.
She has, however, earned the right to call herself a playwright.
Ms. Rothstein, a winner of this years Samuel French Original Short Play Festival, is a member of Youngblood, Ensemble Studio Theaters collective for emerging playwrights under the age of 30. Her plays have been read and produced at The Tank, The Vital Theater, Manhattan Theater Source, Ensemble Studio Theater, the Richard Frankel Theater, as part of the New York International Fringe Festival and in coffee shops, bars and cupcake bakeries around New York.
With Neglect, she is moving beyond the fringe of readings and off-off-Broadway into the world of a full-scale off-Broadway production.
Her play takes place during the 1995 Chicago heat wave that killed more than 700 people, most of whom were senior citizens and black, living in isolation without social contacts or means of transportation.
Rose, an elderly woman living in a housing project, seldom hears from her children, has few friends and rarely leaves her apartment. Joseph, a black man in his 20s, lives down the hall. The heat brings them together but, for two people who have experienced more than enough neglect in their lives, holding onto that bond proves difficult.
Ms. Rothstein says the idea of setting the play in this time and place was prompted by reading Eric Klinenbergs treatise, Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago, for a course. I had been reading a lot about social responsibility, Rothstein said. Im kind of obsessed with it, what we owe each other in society. I wanted to take the economic, political and social forces that lead to a human being dying alone and combine them with this character I had in my heart, Rose. You cant write a play about social forces. You write about an individual.
Ms. Rothstein says she patterned Rose after her great aunt who had just died. She was one of the toughest, most intelligent, totally insatiable people Ive ever known. She had actor William Jackson Harper in mind when she wrote the part of Joseph in her play. The two had worked together previously.
I really knew these characters. It was a blessing. Its a lot harder when you have to make them up.
Ms. Rothstein says Neglect and her interest in social issues can be traced to her Jewish heritage and observing her parents, who were active volunteers in the community and the schools in Avon, Conn., where she grew up. She was a member of Beth El in West Hartford, participated in United Synagogue Youth and went to a Reform summer camp in Massachusetts.
Oh, God, yes, I grew up in a pretty religious family. Tikkun olam, she said, using the Hebrew words for the Jewish command to heal the world. Theres a strong idea of right and wrong, and that you should work for the right. Its what I love about my religion, to have that at the heart of it.
When asked if she wrote the play before or after Hurricane Katrina, Ms. Rothstein paused a moment trying to remember. It seems unlikely that someone writing about neglect could lose track of such an egregious example, but Ms. Rothstein had taken a course on environmental health and was well aware of the social forces that could lead to such a tragedy.
Katrinas aftermath wasnt, unfortunately, surprising, she says. I think of what we do about the effects of climate change as another form of social justice or injustice: Whos left behind? Do we care?
She chose the Chicago heat wave but she didnt need a specific heat wave or hurricane.
Its happening all over America, all over the world. With global warming, the heat waves are longer and worse, and particularly deadly in the cities, but we never hear the stories of the people who are dying alone.
Retta Blaneys book Working on the Inside: The Spiritual Life through the Eyes of Actors, features interviews with Kristin Chenoweth, Edward Herrmann, Liam Neeson, Phylicia Rashad, Vanessa Williams and many others.
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National Catholic Reporter, October 13, 2006
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