By: Paulanne Simmons
October 30,2020: In 1935, Sinclair Lewis published a novel called It Can’t Happen Here. Written at the time fascism was on the rise in Europe, the novel was Lewis’s attempt to alert Americans to the danger they faced in their own country. In it, he chronicles the ascent of Berzelius “Buzz” Winthrop, a populist demagogue who is elected president by promising a return to traditional values but ends up imposing a totalitarian dictatorship. One year after publication, the Federal Theatre Project (part of the Works Progress Administration established by FDR’s New Deal) commissioned Lewis and John C. Moffit to write a stage play based on the novel.
The relevancy of this novel was not lost on Motl Didner, associate artistic director of The National Yiddish Theatre – Folksbiene. The work, says Didner, is “historically significant” because during troubled times we are always vulnerable to “strong men who come in with promises that they’re going to fix everything.”
In 1936, the play was staged simultaneously, in different languages, by twenty-one theater companies. So it’s not surprising that Didner found a Yiddish version in the public library. This was before the Covid pandemic, when a live performance could be envisioned. But even after theaters closed, Didner did not give up his plans, hoping to present an online version of the work.
Then, in June, he had a conversation with Voza Rivers, executive producer of the New Heritage Theatre Group, the oldest non-profit African American theater company in New York City. Both were concerned with the challenges faced by theaters at a time when live performance is not possible.
Rivers said, “We need a new WPA,” and a lightbulb went on in Didner’s head. It Can’t Happen Here would be the vehicle to bring theater back to those days when the government came to its rescue.
Didner and Rivers teamed up with Israeli Artists Project, Kairos Italy Theater, National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene, New York Classical Theatre, Pan Asian Repertory Theatre, Playful Substance, Repertorio Español and Turkish American Repertory Theater & Entertainment to present a multi-lingual reading of this landmark play.
The reading features over 60 actors perfomring their parts in Yiddish, English, Spanish, Italian, Turkish and Hebrew. Subtitles translate the script into English. Because the same character is played by different actors, the name of the character appears in each actor’s window.
Didner believes that, as in 1936, the United States is now at a crossroads. With “classic dictators” in Russia, Belarus, Venezuela, Hungary and the Philippines, Americans have to decide whether they re going to follow in that direction or “return to an era of nonpartisan compromise and unity.”
Hopefully, It Can’t Happen Here will help put some Americans on the right track.
The event is part of National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene’s ongoing virtual programming, Folksbiene! LIVE, an online celebration of Yiddish culture, featuring live-streamed theater, American Jewish performers, concerts, lectures, talks, and other events. Programming provides inspirational and entertaining experiences as cultural and arts venues across the country and the world remain closed amid the coronavirus pandemic.
It can be viewed from Oct. 28 through Nov. 1 at 1 PM at https://nytf.org/live.