Almost 10 years later, I’m still reeling from Bartlett Sher’s extraordinary Broadway revival of Clifford Odets’ 1935 family drama Awake and Sing!, which featured a cast including Zoe Wanamaker, Mark Ruffalo and Lauren Ambrose. Sher’s more recent production of Odets’ Golden Boy was perfectly fine, but Golden Boy lacks the fiery passion and crawling tensions of Awake and Sing!. Waiting for Lefty may be Odets’ notorious and overtly politic work, but Awake and Sing! is his masterpiece, and one of the finest examples of mid-20th-century realistic drama.
The new staging of the play at the Public Theater has been produced by NAATCO (National Asian American Theatre Company) and features an all-Asian cast playing Odets’ characters, all of whom are New York, Depression-era Jews. This actually isn’t a first for NAATCO, which presents classic and well-known modern dramas. Back in 2007, I attended a fine NAATCO production of William Finn’s musical Falsettoland with an Asian cast playing the Jewish characters.
This production reminds me of a recent attempt by NAAP (National Asian Artists Project) to present Show Boat with an all-Asian cast. Tommy Tune was going to direct it, and it looked pretty intriguing. However, in the face of protests over Asian actors portraying African-American characters facing Southern racism, the production was canceled.
There have been no such protests over NAATCO’s Awake and Sing!, nor can I imagine why anyone would take offense to it. Although the characters may all be Jews (who on occasion make derogatory comments about offstage Japanese individuals), and may be grounded in the Depression and the socialist politics being considered by many at the time, Awake and Sing! is also a universal tale of family members facing economic struggles and reacting with either idealism or harsh practicality. This reminds me of the often-told anecdote about the Japanese production of Fiddler on the Roof, where the director remarked how the storyline felt so Japanese.
As directed by Stephen Brown-Fried (best known for his work with the Shakespeare Theatre of NJ), the cast handles the ethnic, Yiddish-infected language with impressive comfort. However, they do not portray the characters as Jewish caricatures, which they can easily become considering how they are portrayed by Odets (i.e. the domineering mother, the submissive father, the over-the-top grandfather).
It is an intimate production, with the audience seated on opposite sides of a black-box space, with the Berger family’s apartment standing in the middle. This may not rank with the Bartlett Sher revival, but it is a strong revival with truthful performances and an unorthodox casting concept that is successfully pulled off.