Sometimes a play written decades ago seems contemporary.
That’s the case with “The Melting Pot,” a play British author Israel Zangwill wrote in 1908 about anti-Semitism and the hatred of immigrants.
It’s the inaugural production of a new performing organization, the Jewish Community Theater of Montgomery County, along with the Temple Beth Ami Players.
“There’s been no dedicated Jewish theater in the County for like 30 years,” said David Fialkoff, director. “And the County has such a large Jewish population.”
Edlavitch Jewish Community Center’s Theater J, a professional Jewish theater, is in Washington, D.C.
“The Melting Pot” concerns a family of Sephardic Jews in Russia. After all the members of his immediate family are killed in a pogrom, the protagonist, David Quixano, immigrates to the United States – where he faces the challenge of starting a new life.
Fialkoff, who was also a founding member of Temple Beth Ami Players, approached the theater organization for permission to use its space for the “Melting Pot” production.
“Our goal is to promote Jewish culture and Jewish people, and secondarily, social justice,” said Fialkoff, who believes both goals are met by “The Melting Pot.”
“It was a big Broadway hit, and the longest-running play on Broadway up to that time,” he pointed out. “But it doesn’t get performed now.”
When Fialkoff’s wife came upon a copy of the play in a used bookstore, he was “amazed” to find the parallels between it and today’s immigrant and refugee situation.
Fialkoff, who is also directing “The Melting Pot,” made a bold move that underscored the parallels, by casting the role of David Quixano very “nontraditionally.”
There are other non-Jews in the cast, but for the lead role Fialkoff chose Elenilson Ayala, who came to the United States 10 years ago from El Salvador.
Ayala started acting formally in middle school, but before that, had borrowed a uniform from the post office to put one-person show. In the States, he attended the Steuben Center for Visual and Performing Arts and is now graduating from the National Conservatory for Dramatic Arts.
Ayala had some pause about Fialkoff’s direction – which was to speak with a Latino accent as a Russian Jew.
It has “always been a challenge” for Ayala to “bely” his El Salvadoran accent and “speak naturally” like the characters he was portraying, he said. Now, suddenly, he’s had to “go back and sound Latino.”
“‛You want me to undo 15-plus years of work,’” he recalled telling Fialkoff, laughing. “It took a while, but now the cast members are more comfortable; I’m in touch with my old self, old voice. I hope the audience will accept it and get it.”
Aside from a shift in accents, Ayala said he connected with the character – not only because of their shared immigrant status.
“David is very cultural; he’s the sponge of the family,” he said. “Also, he battles with family members who haven’t done the crossover [to acculturation]. The grandmother only speaks Yiddish, and his aunt stays only in the Jewish community.”
From the perspective of how the immigrants are accepted – or not, the actor said he was “shocked” at first about how history was repeating itself. “First it was the Irish, the Poles, the Jews. People are still afraid of differences between people, of the unknown.
“It’s all very old with a new twist. It’s a different variety of people telling the story,” Ayala continued. “There are lines in the play that refer to immigrants as ‘insects’ who are taking our jobs. It’s a hundred years later, and it’s really sad.”
“The Melting Pot” has two performances, Saturday, Aug. 11 at 8 p.m., and Sunday, Aug. 12 at 2 p.m., at Temple Beth Ami, 14330 Travilah Road, Rockville. For more information, call 301-340-6818 or visit https://www.facebook.com/JCTMCtheater.