Joe Papp, the great theater impresario, produced plays about outsiders. His devotion to the outcast or interloper helped create a new era on Broadway. To champion the underdog, it helps to feel like an underdog. Joe Papp was such an outsider, a product of his Jewish identity.
To be Jewish is to step into a tradition of being an outsider. Torah had its own mechanisms of creating outsiders. In parshat Naso, we read various ways Torah created “othering” categories. Favored persons might be priests or those who are pure. The priests placed impure people outside the camp.
If you wanted to achieve greater purity, you could expand your “otherness.” In Torah, you might become a Nazir. A Nazir demonstrated tremendous commitment, living an ascetic life in pursuit of a new “insider” status. Joseph Papp was a modern-day seeker of holiness, in the lineage of a Nazir. While not an ascetic, Papp was wholly devoted to a holy cause.
Papp understood that every person has had their nose pressed to the glass, looking inside and feeling like an “other.” The more obvious reasons might be sexual identity, skin color, or immigrant status. Papp intuited that if we approached the world from our own place of differentiation, he could foster understanding and thoughtfulness.
Joe Papp hid his Jewish identity as a young man. Yussel became Joe and Papirofsky became Papp. In his early career, he told no one he was Jewish. A notorious workaholic, Papp began building what became the Public Theater in Manhattan, far off-Broadway, operating as a non-profit organization. That stage showcased the stories of outsiders because of Papp’s worldview. In particular, the Public was a venue for actors of color to embody roles traditionally played by white actors. The theater-going public learned to appreciate the world through the eyes of an “other.”
Papp turned to Shakespeare early on. His first Shakespearean play in 1962 was The Merchant of Venice. Shylock the moneylender is the quintessential outsider. A Jewish man limited by his identity trying to protect his family and his capital. But Shylock is also portrayed as sinister and craven. The Jewish community of New York protested the choice of play. It was then that Papp made public his own Jewish identity, declaring he would personally direct the play and that he would not produce a play that betrayed his own Jewishness.
The Merchant of Venice, featuring George C. Scott, was a triumph for the Public Theater and a turning point for Joe Papp. Shylock’s anger was portrayed not as the arbitrary venom of a congenitally spiteful man, but rather as a product of Jewish suffering inflicted by anti-Semites and their allies. In Papp’s hands, the scornfulness morphed into an appreciation of the outsider.
Papp was the “nazir” of the New York theater world. He elevated his outsider status, with devotion to a holy cause – to connect every theater goer with the fullness of society. His success can be measured by the broad public awareness his plays gave to racism, the Vietnam war, homophobia, and sexism. The Public theater first brought us The Normal Heart, Hair, and For Colored Girls Who Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf.
The lesson for us today is to seek out the stories of others. We can begin by acknowledging our own sense of being other. From knowing our own frailty, we can better hear their stories – trans people, new immigrants, our African-American neighbors, and our Asian co-workers. We too can expand understanding and kindness if we allow ourselves to be challenged to see the world through other eyes.
Rabbi Evan J. Krame