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Virtual Performance of ‘It Can’t Happen Here’ Recalls Vital Role of the WPA

October 21, 2020

By Naeisha Rose

Repertorio Español Theater Company players in a scene from 2019’s “La Gringa.”

New York, NY – Nine diverse Off-Broadway and Off-Off Broadway theater companies will be participating in a virtual reading of It Can’t Happen Here, a dramatization of the 1935 Robert Sinclair novel, on Oct. 28 at 1 p.m.

The National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene, The Israeli Artists Project, Kairos Italy Theater, the New Heritage Theater Group/Impact Repertory Theater, the New York Classical Theater, the Pan Asian Repertory Theatre, Playful Substance, Repertorio Español and the Turkish American Repertory Theater & Entertainment will also make their interpretations of the dramatization available online on Nov. 1 at 1 p.m.

The more than 60 actors and additional crew members from the various theater companies are a part of Actors’ Equity Association, the American Guild of Musical Artists, the American Guild of Variety Artists and SAG-AFTRA.

The piece was first adapted for the stage by John C. Moffitt and Sinclair in 1936, and was simultaneously presented by 21 theater companies under the Works Progress Administration (WPA) Federal Theater Project during the time that fascism gripped Europe.

It Can’t Happen Here chronicles the rise of a demagogue who is elected president of the U.S. after fueling fear, promising extensive economic reforms, and sweeping social reforms while promoting old-fashioned values and patriotism, according to the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene, which is hosting this one-time multilingual event to support the theater industry and that has been devastated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Folksbiene is also entering its 106th season.

“We came across a script in the New York Public Library – an adaptation of It Can’t Happen Here,” said Motl Didner, the associate director of the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene, who found the piece to be very representative of 2020. “It was a novel in 1935, and America was in the middle of a Great Depression at that time. It was really uncertain of what direction it was going to take and fascism was on the rise in Europe.”

Spain, Italy and German became fascist countries and the novel imagines what would have happened if the ideology got a foothold in the U.S.

“In order to provide jobs and improve infrastructure in the United States there was a government agency called the WPA,” said Didner. “It mostly put people to work building tunnels, bridges and finishing the electrical grid in America. They also saw value to cultural institutions in America, so they had the theater project as well as music, arts and dance. This was way ahead of its time. They invested heavily in immigrants and minority communities.”

Minority and non-English theater companies across the country, as well as the murals in Harlem Hospital are some of the examples of the work of the WPA that was initiated back in the 1930s.

The idea to honor the work of the WPA in the arts was spurred by a conversation with Voza Rivers and Jamal Joseph, the executive producer and senior director, respectively, at the New Heritage Theater/Impact Repertory Theater, which is a spiritual successor to the American Negro Theater, which was a part of the federal program.

“The light went off when Jamal said, ‘well we need a new WPA,'” said Didner. “We need something for our times. Not only are we like in the Great Depression – we are in the midst of a big economic crisis where there is high unemployment that is affecting our donors and grants – we are both in a non-profit theater. On top of that it’s not just an economic issue, but because of the health issue because we can’t do live theater performances. So that was absolutely what we needed.”

Not only have the actors not received a paycheck, but theater artists and workers, which include electricians, carpenters, costume makers, technicians, ushers, ticket sellers, lighting designers, theater cleaners and set and costume designers are also affected by COVID-19.

There are approximately 45 theater artists working behind the scenes on this project, according to Didner.

Prior to the presentation, there will be a virtual discussion held by New York University with Didner and Laura Caparrotti, the artistic director at Kairos Italy Theater on Oct. 22 at 5 p.m. for free on the school’s website and its Facebook page.

“The creation, history and significance of the 1930’s Works Progress Administration (WPA) Federal Theater Project, established during the great depression under President Franklin D. Roosevelt, placed a spotlight on the importance of the role of arts and culture in the United States,” said Rivers and Joseph in a statement. “Not only did the Federal Theatre Project program employ tens of thousands of workers in theater, music, arts, etc., it also supported racial integration of black and white Americans. Significant theatrical presentations were produced and presented.”

 

October 21, 2020

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