Thursday, September 1, 2011

Life & Art mix Unexpectedly

I write this entry today during the first week back in rehearsals for "Kaddish (or The Key in the Window)" based on the poem by Allen Ginsberg directed by Kim Weild. Our premiere later this month will mark the 50th Anniversary of the poem's publication. The poem's title comes from the traditional Jewish prayer for the dead, particularly of a parent. Allen lost his mother Naomi at the height of his fame with "Howl". The Kaddish was not said at her grave because they did not have a minion of 10 men to bear witness. Allen wrote his elegy to Naomi 3 years after her passing.

Since our initial workshop of this play 2 years ago, my father passed away a year ago in August. The experience of the play, the research of the tradition and ritual of observing such an occasion was swirling in my head. My father while fairly healthy in this elder years, fell out of his bed and suffered a severe subdural hematoma. Within several hours, he was taken to hospital and within the following hour rushed to a specialized hospital to undergo emergency brain surgery to relieve the swelling. But it was clear that his condition was worse and that the damage was fatal. He was left in a coma.

One rushed day of making difficult family decisions via conference calls, I jumped on to the last flight to Louisville where I met my family at the hospital to make our collective goodbyes together. By midnight, the nurse entered to remove the life support, feeding tubes, and the like. She administered the morphine drop and I felt my father's already motionless hand gently release from my own. He held steady through the night. My sister and I slept on a floor in a storage closet for a mere 2 hours. This would be the last sleep I would get for the next 2 and a half days, a feat I had never in my life encountered. By the following night, only 25 hours after removing life support, he passed away in one final struggle and noble fight there in front of myself, my mom, and 2 of my sisters. Never bearing witness to the passing of a life before, it was an extraordinarily profound experience for me. I will never forget it. The arrangements began at 3am that night and I was appointed to write the eulogy (the reason I didn't sleep the third night).

Loss and mourning are basic human experiences that we universally share. I am not Jewish, but I marvel at the rituals that other cultures have to mark these profound occasions. Growing up in a Protestant household without even the rituals of the Catholic Church to guide us, my family relied on the social habits of our community to navigate us through the difficult terrain of our own "shiva". Having lived in New York for 2 decades, I am fairly removed by time and distance from many of these social habits in Kentucky. But leaning on them at that time had its comforts.

This year, in seemingly pure coincidence, our first day of rehearsal for "Kaddish" landed on what is called, in the Jewish faith, the Yahrzeit or the anniversary of my father's passing. Traditionally this is a day of reflection, a day to avoid celebratory and social events. One lights a solitary candle for 24 hours and does something in the memory of the loved one, a mitvah, such as donating to a charity in their name, or engaging in spiritual study. It had not occurred to me until this month that my father's Yahrzeit would be our first day of rehearsal for "Kaddish" of all things.

The circumstances of Allen's loss of Naomi are quite different, of course. She suffered from mental illness for years, going in and out of hospitals, enduring a lobotomy, and succumbing to a stroke while institutionalized. It is not only a story of loss, but of loss that happens in pieces, many times in many ways, over many years. Allen was not a practicing Jew, but even 3 years after her passing, he reached back to his roots, his family's cultural traditions to find peace in his own way through his art. I may not have experienced the same pain and suffering that Allen endured with his mother's struggles, but I understand this very simple and yet profound impulse: Allen looked to his muse Poetry as a way to channel sensation, to find inspiration, to create utterance as a way to discover grace, or what Allen would call "consciousness".

On the occasion of my father's Yahrzeit, I am grateful that I also have my muse Theatre to navigate me through my own experience. And with Ginsberg's poem, he provides a difficult but sublimely beautiful terrain.

The Adaptations Project presents its inaugural production "Kaddish (or The Key in the Window)" at New York Theatre Workshop's 4th Street Theatre Sept. 29 - Oct. 9, 2011
Tickets are on sale now at
30% Early-Bird Discount in effect thru Sept. 12

For more information, visit

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