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Jewish Theatre of Bloomington Explores Conflict, Humanity in Latest Production

By Jenny Porter Tilley | H-T columnist

May 10, 2019

A story Jewish Theatre of Bloomington brings to the stage this week starts with steel-toed Doc Martens, and ends with redemption.

"Cherry Docs," a two-man show, stars Jonathan Golembiecki as a liberal, Jewish defense attorney and Christopher Plonka as a neo-Nazi skinhead facing a murder charge for repeatedly kicking an immigrant with the offending title boots, resulting in death.

With hate crimes at the forefront of Indiana's latest legislative session, the legal drama, written by David Gow in the late 1990s, is especially relevant. Artistic director Audrey Heller said she wasn't looking specifically for a play addressing hate crimes, but "Cherry Docs" fit in with her goal to find stories that address Jewish concerns but also speak to a wider audience.

"When I read 'Cherry Docs,' I saw it as a gift to JTB because it was beautifully written, it was timely, and because it addressed the issue of hate crimes with heart and humanity," she said in an email. "It would have ben very easy for the playwright to have shown the neo-Nazi skinhead as an evil person with no chance of redemption. He could also have shown only one side of the court-appointed defense attorney as a staunch liberal with no prejudices of his own. But in the play, both characters are forced to confront their own prejudices and there is redemption in the end."

Director Liam Castellan said when he first read the script, he was struck by the intensity of the interactions between the two characters. Gow didn't simply write a story about good versus evil, Castellan said.

"(He) poses a much more unsettling question: Is the change in one character worth the cost to the other?" he said in a phone interview. "Both are changed, and not necessarily for the better."

Leading heavy topics on stage isn't new for Castellan. He directed Jewish Theater of Bloomington's 2018 production of "Church and State," which examines gun violence and politics.

Preparing to direct the intimate cast for "Cherry Docs," Castellan did his homework. He watched a Ted Talk by Christian Picciolini, author of "White American Youth," a former white supremacist. He also researched Derek Black, whose father was a grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. Black is the subject of the book "Rising Out of Hatred."

Using Picciolini and Black as examples, the director learned more about how individuals can be drawn into racist ideology, and how they can leave the lifestyle behind. Although neither Picciolini nor Black's stories involve a defendant-lawyer relationship, they both highlight personal connections as a path for changing a belief system.

"You can't just argue your way out of it," Castellan said. "They have to compare what they've been taught with what they're seeing in front of them, in terms of how certain people that they're taught to hate are actually behaving." Black, for example, began his path to redemption when he went to college and started getting to know Jewish students.

Castellan said "Cherry Docs" helps show how prejudice is based on assumptions, but getting to know others can challenge that — and this show addresses assumptions on both sides.

"It's easy to think of white supremacy as this vague force that's just sort of there," he said, "but it's made up of people. Those people, whether we want to admit it or not, have their humanity, and I don't think denying that about them is any way out of the problem.

"Theater at its best is a way for an audience to get to know a kind of person they don't normally interact with," Castellan said.

When watching entertainment live, instead of on screen, he said, "it's a greater vehicle to empathy than just about all other art forms. You can put a novel down. You can pause or yell at a movie. As an audience member (in a theater), you're voluntarily giving up some amount of control."

Theatergoers interested in relinquishing that control and taking a deep look at issues surrounding hate crimes can see the show through May 19. Tickets are $25.

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