Jake: So, Barbara, one evening you were over at my apartment and you had a proposition for me to do this play with you, based on a book called Kaddish for an Unborn Child. Because I’m your only Jewish friend, I assume.
B: That’s not true!
J: I know, I know. But you were more passionate about this potential little pet project than I remember you being about any project before. Where did this come from?
B: I can’t remember what year that was, can you?
J: I think it was 2011.
B: Right! You don’t know this, but I first read Imre Kertész’s work in 2005.
J: I do know this!
B: Well, you do know that part, but when I opened the book and I felt the strength and activeness of the text—it feels like Kertész is in the room talking with you when you read the book—this protagonist that is going through this really brutal and honest self-examination has such a strong, clear voice. And as I was reading this, I had this image of you in my mind.
B: I don’t know. It just happened. It’s like your voice was in my head, reading this book to me. I read the book in one sitting. I put it down and pulled out a sketch-pad. I started to draw and think about if I ever had the opportunity to stage this book… But I always knew that you would play this protagonist.
J: I think that is so crazy. Because when I read this book, I first got lost in and then also fell in love with the language, but I certainly didn’t hear my voice. I don’t think of myself in such elevated, genius terms. And when I tried to imagine myself performing these words, I couldn’t visualize at all what it would look like or how it could be a theatrical experience. Or, rather, how I could possibly be up to making it a theatrical experience, how I could pull it off. I felt smaller than the words.
B: That’s funny, because to me you have always felt just as big as those words. So that night when I came to your apartment with this idea, the idea was six years in the making. You just didn’t know.
Jake: No I did not.
B: So I was really nervous to ask you. And I have a question to ask you now. Why the hell did you say yes?
J: Honestly, at first it was just to do a project with you. Because, remember, I said yes before ever having read the book. I said yes immediately. We’ve had this…how long have we been friends? Twelve years?
J: For twelve years. And I trust your vision. And I want to work with you.
I didn’t think about this at the time but there is this Jewish phrase, Na-aseh, v’nishmah, which means, “We will do, and we will hear.” You do first, and then you hear. And it’s about revelation. So, that’s what I did! (laughs)
B: Okay, the other question I have for you is: I basically asked you to come out of retirement (albeit a very early retirement) from performing. You had and have a very full life as a Jewish organizer and a GLBT activist, and you stopped acting in 2004. What about this text ultimately lead you to the decision to stick with the project and come back to performing?
J: Pre-dating my connection to the text is my connection with Hungary. I first went to Hungary when you were living there in 2007 on your Fulbright. You helped me fall in love with this gray country and its imposing architecture and its gorgeous cultural sensory overload, almost as much as I fell in love with your friends. There was a deep passion for people and for life, for forming authentic relationships, and I was immediately welcomed in. By the time I returned to Budapest in 2011, I was very aware of the political situation, by which I mean the 2010 election. And it is scary and painful to think that people whom I now love are living in uncertainty. And that’s all it takes for my activist self to want to do something. And this play is, certainly, something.
B: I want to jump in for a minute and continue on this thread of the text. When I first read the book it, for me, it was about my connection to history. And I thought about this text as almost an anthropological exploration. I was in a room, alone, somehow having a very intimate conversation with Imre Kertész. And that was my context.
J: Yes, mine too! And I knew that I didn’t want to act his words, I didn’t want to create a character that was acting in a show in front of an audience. This book is a conversation. Imre Kertész speaks in first person, directly to the reader – and I think we both knew that if we were going to do this story justice, we had to do the same.
B: What we use as the opening monologue to the play—which is not the opening text to the book (we reordered things, with Imre’s permission.)—the opening to the play is a section in the book where the main character speaks about Auschwitz, and debunks the myth that there is no explanation for Auschwitz. It’s a very political monologue.
J: It’s a lecture.
B: When I hear you now speak those words out loud, I can’t anymore be alone in that room by myself, having an intimate conversation with Imre Kertész, and have that be the only context. The new context, for me, must take into consideration my own context as a Hungarian American, the context of my family still living in Hungary, the context of my friends living in Hungary. And when he talks about “leaders, chancellors and other titled usurpers,” I can’t ignore the political situation in Hungary right now, and the new resonance it gives this text.
J: So a question for you. When did you begin to feel empowered and compelled to speak from your Hungarian American perspective?
B: In Imre Kertész’s Banquet Speech for the Noble Prize in 2002, the ending line is “And if you now ask me what still keeps me here on this earth, what keeps me alive, then, I would answer without any hesitation: love.” So this might sound trite, but the more I spent time in Hungary, and the more my relationships with my family and friends deepened, the more love I felt for that place and my loved ones, the more I felt my voice was accepted, truly, as a Hungarian American. And when I see the country in turmoil and in an extreme transitional state, and when I see people that I love fearful, then that makes me feel pain. And it also makes me feel impotent. And that feeling of impotency is what is compelling me to use my voice as a Hungarian American artist.
J: One thing that amazes me about all this turmoil you are speaking about is that so much of it directly affects artists, and the theater. In New York, where we live, I can’t even imagine the government giving two hoots about anything anybody says on a stage, because nobody really listens. No, that’s not fair. But nobody in higher echelons of power seems to believe that theater, or any art these days, can have power. But one of the first things that Viktor Orban knew to do was to make life difficult for artists – because he knows there’s power there.
B: I think so much about these cycles of history, and how we, as human beings, continue to repeat our own mistakes. We know where anti-Semitism, anti-Roma sentiment, homophobia and anti-intellectualism can lead. And yet here we are. And not just in Hungary! All over Europe, in the United States, in the Middle East, in China, we can’t escape it! When you marginalize people and make them “other,” it destroys something in the human spirit. That’s why I think this particular book, at this particular time, spoken through this particular man’s words, are so important.
J: Because his words are so fresh! Because he doesn’t just lament this vicious cycle, he calls us out. He holds us responsible. Because, really, who put these people in power in the first place? In the most direct way, he implicates us for being fascinated by the sheer madness and cruelty and feigned impotence of the whole situation.
B: When I think about this idea of history repeating itself, I feel compelled to get a little bit personal. Just for a minute. My grandmother left Hungary in 1944 and eventually made her way to the United States, through New York and into New Jersey.
J: Ew. New Jersey!
B: Are you marginalizing New Jersey?
J: Shoot. You called me out.
B: Anyway…. My grandmother was 18 years old when she left. I am 33 years old and live in New York. I live in a neighborhood where I can look out my window and see the Statue of Liberty, the first thing my grandmother saw when she came to the United States. My grandmother was a child performer in Budapest and my training is as a performer. When my grandmother left Budapest, she wasn’t sure if she would ever see her family again, if she would ever perform on the stage again. She died last week, and here I am, making preparations to bring a performance that I am incredibly proud of to Budapest. She always told me that I got my love of performance from her.
J: I think you got your bravery from her too.
B: But it means the world to me that you, my best friend, will be on stage performing in a piece that we created together in my grandmother’s beloved Budapest.
J: One last thing. You have been in contact with the lovely Magda Kertész for… how long now?
B: The last 9 months.
J: And then you met Magda and Imre just a few weeks ago. Please please, tell me about it.
B: They were very gracious and invited me into their apartment in Budapest. I went up the elevator and the doors opened, and there was Magda, standing in the hallway with a huge grin on her face, and I immediately felt like I was meeting an old friend. We walked into the apartment, into Imre’s office, and I met his smiling face for the first time, and I felt instantly like I’ve known this man my whole life.
J: What did you say? What did you talk about?
B: He asked me if I liked Beckett. I said, “Yes,” and immediately knew that was the correct answer. We talked about his work, we talked about their family, we talked about my family, we talked about writing. But really, what was going on for me was an insane out-of-body experience where I said to myself, “I can’t believe I’m sitting here talking so casually with Imre Kertész!” And I had moments where I thought I would start crying. And I had to fight back tears because it was a dream come true for me.
J: Did you talk about this play, Kaddish?
B: Yes. Something that shocks me about Imre’s work is that it’s not very well known in the United States. So both he and Magda have been incredibly supportive of this play from the beginning. He asked me about the set. I showed him pictures. He asked me all about this mysterious performer, Jake. I showed him pictures. He asked me when I was first introduced to his text, and why did I feel compelled to stage it. Both he and Magda are very excited about the prospect of introducing Imre’s words to a new audience.
J: You have to tell the story, Barbara…
B: I asked Imre, if we were ever able to bring this play to Budapest, would he want to come see it. And he thought for what seemed like an eternity to me, and then looked up to me and said, “Barbara, I would crawl on my hands and knees to be there.”