Kenya, 1912. The young Jewish woman from Russia stands with a suitcase, concerned about the man staring at her, trying to talk to her—until he shows a picture he has of her. “Jesus, Mary and Joseph, it’s you!” she exclaims. “I believe I have the wrong party,” he replies, a Talmudic scholar wondering if this could be his promised bride ...
Later, introduced to an African man, the young woman says, “They call me Comrade Basha. You can call me Basha. Is that a problem?”
Mae Ziglin Meidav’s play, Basha Rubenchek from Minsk, Comrade of Petaluma, playing at the Berkeley City Club through May 3, is a tribute to her “firebrand great-aunt, a chicken farmer in Petaluma infamous in the family for having tried to start a utopian enterprise in Africa.” Visiting from her native St. Louis, Meidav recalls being taken aside, at 12, by her aunt, who told her to “be aware of the ‘anti’ forces in the world, anti-Communism foremost among them.” After moving to the Bay Area with her own family years later, Meidav took her still upright 88-year-old relative into their home.
The subject of a book, Comrades and Chicken Farmers, by Kenneth L. Kann, and a musical, Chutzpah, by Pauline Pfander, Meidav’s play shows—right after intermission—Basha and her partner (Shimon; the two never married) arriving from Africa in 1916 under a sign, “Welcome to Petaluma”—and Shimon remarks, “I wonder if we should’ve gone to Palestine?” (Earlier, speaking of how Jews were urged to settle in Kenya as a new homeland, Basha says, “You can’t always rely on the fickleness of a British invitation.”)
“We can be pioneers here, too,” she replies.
But Shimon worries, “We know nothing of chicken ranching.”
“You knew nothing of cattle ranching in Kenya.”
“That was the tragedy.”
The play, which follows Basha as she leaves Minsk, against her father’s wishes, where she worked for social causes and witnessed pogroms by the cossacks, is peppered with Meidav’s sprightly wit. But the conditions the Jewish immigrants were up against, everywhere, were are harsh as Basha’s hopes—and determination—ran high.
“The real Basha changed her name back and forth,” Meidav said, “to confuse the Federal agents in the days of the Palmer Raids and later the fascist American Silver Shirts ... they deported Emma Goldman and others.”
Scene by scene, the play delineates the background out of which Comrade Basha came, her progressive beliefs joined to a youthful, feminine spirit (deftly portrayed by Sarah Eismann), keeping her active, open to the world in the midst of adversity.
Lia Metz has directed her cast—Reuben Alvear II, Al Badger, Biko Eisen-Martin, Theresa Miller, Brian O’Connor, Jeff Trescott and as understudy for Basha, originally from Kyrgyzstan, Yelena Segal—with care, giving the episodic story both epic and intimate overtones. The excellent designers—Don Cate, set and lights; Bradford Chapin, sound; Jessie Amoroso, costumes—more than enhance these qualities.
There are nice touches that bring in the great events of the times: a visitor asks about the pictures of Lenin and Trotsky on the ranchhouse wall, “Nice pictures; those your relatives?” And there’s some fictionalization that hints at other issues. Biko Eisen-Martin, a self-proclaimed “red-green-black diaper baby,” who teaches Social Studies
and Black Studies at Berkeley High, plays a Kenyan tribesman as well as itinerant African-American farm laborer, Nathaniel, who Basha teaches to read—and who proves crucial when the local American Legionaires and other reactionaries decide to take matters into their own hands, part of the post-World War I backlash against immigrants, blacks, Catholics and Jews—and leftist sympathizers.
“I had to collapse a great deal of history into six or seven years onstage,” said Meidav. “And I wanted to incorporate the Jewish immigrants with the black community in Basha’s relationship with the farm worker, show how contrary to racism they were. All of it has to be shown onstage as interaction, the excitement of live theater.”
Meidav has had a rich, “zig-zag career,” working as an assistant to the chief engineer at BART for 21 years, where she set up a lunch hour creative writing group with “P.R. people, industrial engineers, a graphic designer” that still meets at her house. Meidav worked in computer analysis for aircraft companies: MacDonald-Douglas, De Havilland, Israel. She’s also studied and taught sociology, at one point as a Visiting Scholar at UC Berkeley. In theater, she’s done solo shows, eventually putting together a two-act play out of “these little vignettes,” produced by Stanley Spenger for Subterranean Shakespeare at La Val’s as Delicate Pinstripes and Other Tales. Spenger also produced and starred in Franz Kafka’s Love Life, which Brookside Rep produced in a newer version last year. Basha Rubenchek from Minsk, Comrade of Petaluma received a California Living History Center grant.
Brookside executive producer John McMullen, who directed Kafka, commented on the timeliness of Basha: “When we do a play, it doesn’t start out topical, but it ends up that way. And now we do one about Comrade Basha and Jewish chicken ranchers in Petaluma—and if you turn on Fox News, every 15 seconds you hear ‘socialism, socialism!’”
Basha Rubenchek from Minsk,
Comrade of Petaluma
8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday; 5 p.m. Sundays through May 3 at Berkeley City Club, 2315 Durant Ave. $19-$24.
(800) 838-3006. www.BrooksideRep.org.