Rose (Janet Suzman) is an old Jewish lady living in Florida, of Russian-Ukrainian decent. Over two and a half hours she tells us her story; taking us from eastern to western Europe, to British Mandate Palestine, back again, right down the east coast of the United States, the Promised Land and Occupied Territories. Barely pausing for breath – except to literally pause for breath and take the pills her doctors prescribe – Suzman’s performance is stellar.
Rose sits in Shiva, a yiddish custom for mourners mainly characterised by sitting on a wooden bench or stool for long periods of time. She sits in Shiva for the entirity of the performance, occasionally getting up to stretch her legs, but from her bench she tells her life story. In the first few lines we learn Rose mourns the death of an child and during the course of the rest of the play we learn who the child is and the significance of not just the child’s death, but Rose’s mourning too.
Her story is one from the heart, from her own perspective, but she chronicles the stains of the twentieth century, mapping history’s milestones like connecting dots. She grew up in a Shetl – a Jewish village – in Russian Ukraine before moving to Warsaw to follow her older brother when she was a teen. She married, had a child and a happy life with her troubled husband before the Nazis invaded and her family was secluded to a Ghetto.
Her seclusion in the Ghetto was not the first, but one of many changes in status for Rose throughout her life. She was a Jew in Russia and a forienger in Poland, a Untermensch in the Third Reich, ghettoised and, surviving the grip of the Holocaust death machine, she becomes a “displaced person,” a refugee. Her precarious status in Europe is one characterised by otherness; even after she crosses the Atlantic, Rose reminds American-Jews of the horrors of the Old Country, her Israeli grandchildren scorn her mongrel Yiddish words. Rose’s experience is the Jewish experience, seeking permanence, but too often denied a home.
Rose is a very moving portrait of one woman’s displacement and reminds me of a gorgeous collection of short stories I’ve been working through by Pulitzer Prize winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Refugees. Coloured with a similar style of humour and hope in the face of desperation, The Refugees offers a glimpse into imagined Vietnamise-American histories from refugees dealing with the duality of a life in a new home and the home left behind.