Yes, Ma: Gay Boy Playwright-Choreographer Makes Good

It's all about his mother (and her love life) in the part-play, part-dance 'The Mar Vista.'

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Yehuda Hyman and the company of "The Mar Vista." Photo: Ethan Hill.

The impetus for creating The Mar Vista (subtitle: “In Search of My Mother’s Love Life”) was the enchantment woven by my mother, who told me stories of events and of real people in her life. Beginning as a small child, I was enrapt by her evocative childhood in Istanbul — the smell, the salty taste, the feel of the sea on summer nights on the island of Antigoni. (Now called Burgazada, it is part of the Princes’ Islands archipelago.) I was enrapt by her escape from Russia with her mother during the Bolshevik Revolution, and by her attraction to Catholicism (to a point of wanting to become a nun — a Jewish woman!) in 1938.

But most of all, it was her enduring yearning for a life of romance. For her, it was a wide-screen, Hollywood, larger-than-life, romantic dream of the way life should be and could be as crystallized in the face of Greta Garbo, who my mother idolized and introduced me to when she took me, as a child, to Garbo film festivals in East Hollywood. So this is why I started make this work, The Mar Vista, which is an untidy jamming together of disparate theatrical techniques — dance, storytelling, drama, performance, tragedy, comedy, lyricism — that probably don’t go together at all, yet cannot exist without each other. This is a story, this is a dance, about my mother.

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During the years of research of trying to uncover my mother’s life (there is much I know but much I didn’t know), I was also confronted with the story of my father, a Polish tailor and a refugee from Nazi-occupied Poland. Diving into that part of my mother’s life — her love life — I had to take a deep look at myself as a Jew and think about how I represent the aftereffects of the Holocaust on my life, which was never talked about in my house. and And I had to take a deep look at my experience, and my father’s experience of me, as a feminine boy attracted to a world of beauty (thank you, Mom) but growing up in a society (LA in the 1960s) in which a queer, chubby little Jewish boy with flamboyant hand gestures meant you spent a lot of time alone in the schoolyard. All of this is to say that I put my feet into the sea of my parent’s lives in order to understand them, but primarily to make a play — a shpiel, which is a Yiddish word that means “play,” as in a theater piece, but also the act of playing, as children do — and not to confront any “issues.” I had an unquenched curiosity about my parent’s lives from before I was born.

However, as I worked on this play — which I’ve been creating, with my devoted ensemble of actor-dancers, for the last five years — certain “issues” have come forth that I thought were just a part of my own history, but now I understand they are themes relevant to us all more than ever: immigration, assimilation, gender identity, sexuality and the delicate lines that are crossed when a son explores his parents’ sexual life. There have been uncomfortable nights in the process. Is it fair to allude to my mother’s emotional infidelity to my father? Did this actually happen or do I imagine that it happened? What do I owe my mother? What do I owe my father? Am I being truthful in representing myself?

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Then there are concrete problems: how does a director-choreographer (me) stage a scene with me, a 62-year-old man, bathing my 92-year-old nude mother (played by a 22-year-old actress who was 18 when we first started working) and be truthful to the complexity and reality of the scene without it turning “icky”? Or should it be “icky”? My mother was a fearless and free-willed woman who believed in the beauty of the human body. She had no queasiness about embracing her anatomy. Why should I?

When I first began The Mar Vista (which was actually in 2000 — it’s many permutations include a story, a straight play with no movement, and a novel), the themes of immigration and closed borders seemed so far away, just a part of my family’s history. Now, because of events in the US (caging of children, separation of families) and worldwide (massive migrations of people escaping unsafe situations), this part of the story is more immediate and much more painful for me to show and for some of our actors to enact.

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So these are a few of my thoughts as we enter our last round of rehearsals. Every motion of the body — though a play with spoken words, the fabric that holds it all together is in the movement of the body — contains extreme longing (for family, for a lover left behind), and release (for the experience of being 100% who you are and loving who you want to love), and joy — because, above all, the gift that both of my parents gave me was permission to dance:

The Mar Vista: In Search of My Mother’s Love Life runs through March 23, 2019 at the Pershing Square Signature Center (480 W. 42nd St.) and is produced by Barbara Nagel and Rosanne Braun. The cast includes Ron Kagan, Ryan Pater, Jacob Perkins and Amanda Schussel as well as Hyman. For tickets, click here.