In Conversation: Joshua William Gelb & Nehemiah Luckett on JAZZ SINGER
I recently met up with director Joshua William Gelb and composer and musical director Nehemiah Luckett in order to discuss jazz singer, their just-now-in-previews but maybe already controversial (if you take the Times at its word) theatrical exhumation of the first feature-length “sound film” The Jazz Singer, which is being performed Abrons Arts Center through October 12th. They were in that ever-so-fragile rehearsal stage when the piece first starts getting put together in its entirety, so while the plan was to hold our interview at the rehearsal space, Josh felt the need to put some space between the process and the discussion about the process. “Let’s go to a bar,” he said.
I’ve known Josh since our grad school days, almost ten years ago now. Nehemiah I was meeting for the first time. They seemed like a natural pairing — Josh, ever alternating between buoyancy and tragedy, with Nehemiah straddling a middle ground between an open and frank awareness regarding the difficulty of their subject matter and an outpouring of empathy for the process of having what must be, at this stage in their rehearsal process, quite the prolonged uncomfortable conversation.
We ordered drinks and brussel sprouts while I fussed with a new phone app that is supposed to transcribe as well as capture audio. The context: Josh, who has long been drawn to old films and the early mythologies of popular culture, encountered the 1927 movie The Jazz Singer, at an earlier and impressionable age. Nehemiah had not watched the movie until he became involved with the project. The following conversation has been edited for clarity.
Josh: I definitely saw it when I was younger and was always drawn to the central story of growing up Jewish in America and what it means to pull away and secularize and assimilate, and as a non-practicing Jew — or someone considers himself culturally Jewish more than religiously — I would always track The Jazz Singer as an interesting piece to engage with, while keeping in the back of my mind that there was a major problem somewhere at the sixty-seven minute mark, in that Al Jolson puts on blackface. And only in the past couple of years did I start to verbalize the problem for myself as an artist: I’ve always felt that this story was mine to tell, but by dint of there being this toxic image, is that still the case?
Nehemiah: My first exposure to The Jazz Singer was all of those times in popular culture when someone puts on black face and they show thirty seconds from The Jazz Singer. I vaguely had a sense of who Al Jolson was because I was at a performing arts school very early and a lot of people were kind of like ‘oh, you have a really nice voice, you should sing some Al Jolson songs.’ I’ll never know if they were being ironic, if they were just being racist because I was in Mississippi, or if they really had no connection between the fact that Al Jolson was the world’s greatest entertainer because he was a black face performer and asking a young black man in Mississippi to sing Al Jolson songs… I never did it and it was not like any of my teachers ever suggested it, but it was always this thing. Later as an undergraduate at Sarah Lawrence, I had a bunch of friends who were in film classes and I became re-introduced to The Jazz Singer by virtue of a lot of people saying, ‘oh my god our film studies class, here we go again, Birth of a Nation, Jolson, Jazz Singer, Gone With the Wind, why. Why!’
So that was always first and foremost in my mind. I always assumed that from the first frame to the last frame of the film it was just Al Jolson and black face, you know, like doing his thing — and so when Josh came up to me and we first a started talking about this project and he asked if I had seen it, I was like… you know? Actually, no.
So I went and I watched it and was really amazed because for the first hour there is no black face and it is an immigrant story, an immigrant artist story, and I felt compelled by that story and then it kind of made the black face in the film for me personally feel even more jarring because I was like, I don’t think it needs to be there.
Josh: It’s sort of a catch 22, right, the movie can’t exist without Al Jolson and Al Jolson, at least in our cultural consciousness, can’t exist without the blackface.
Nehemiah: The big question I was also thinking about, was, what if Al Jolson wasn’t a blackface performer? What if he was just a cantor’s son who decided that he wanted to be a singer and an actor? And… that’s a hypothetical world.
Dan: It is all hypothetical but if… (Al Jolson) wouldn’t be performing in black face now, in the year 2019, because he wouldn’t be able to go on stage like that. So he’d be doing something else.
Nehemiah: Then again, the question is — I feel like there were some people in 1927 who were like, people shouldn’t be going onstage in black face, and yet he was still going onstage in blackface, so —
Josh: The story is all about the tension between old world morality, with this Jewish immigrant family, and the jazz age — this new world music, youth culture, Broadway/Minstrel/Tin Pan Alley tradition… jazz world. I guess now, of course, it couldn’t be that, but what would it be? We’ve spoken about this in terms of equivalent appropriation — would Jolson now be a sort of Eminem rap star?
Nehemiah: Hot take. It’s a great moment to pause so that I can say Eminem really is one of my favorite rappers.
Dan: I guess… he’s fine. I mean, I don’t really listen to rap.
Nehemiah: Me neither!
The conversation moves into the realm of our current “moment.” I inquire if they have found a unique entry point into this conversation. How does one find the space to deal with this? What does it mean to work with toxic material and what can it do?
Nehemiah: I think most of all, this is about the importance of artists continuing to have conversations about difficult topics and finding ways to have those conversations, because right now we are in a time when it’s like ‘oh, you don’t wanna talk about that, cancel that, we don’t want to have that conversation’… but it’s so important that artists never feel that there are conversations that they can’t have. There might be things that you don’t feel comfortable saying or doing, but having a conversation about why is the crux of our current artistic age.
Josh: We’re in a moment where monuments are being toppled, albeit shitty monuments. And yes, I’m petrified of making this piece and engaging with something that has such a lousy reputation. But we’re interested in interrogating that fear and trying to make work not necessarily from a safe space so much as from a brave space.
Nehemiah: That (phrase) is hashtag Orion Johnstone, they are the one who brought that into my life.
Dan: Is this a confrontational piece?
Josh: Can we go back for a second? I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to say that this piece has become semi-autobiographical, and in many ways is as much about The Jazz Singer, which is itself a sort of meta-text on Al Jolson’s theater career, as it has become a semi-autobiographical piece for all of us about how we navigate collaboration while working on a piece like The Jazz Singer. But yeah — is it confrontational?
Nehemiah: The confrontation is mostly happening on the stage so in that way the confrontation is not being aimed at the audience, it’s showing how to work through confrontation towards collaboration.
Josh: I love that.
Nehemiah: In this political time, we are being forced to confront a lot of things that are the darkest part of our American history, not just in our country but around the world. So it’s the concept of being brave and having a safe space that is safe enough that you can feel brave — because it takes bravery to have those conversations that you know will be difficult, with people that might have a viewpoint that is different than yours, but in order to find common ground and to communicate with each other, those conversations must be had.
The brussel sprouts arrive. They are extraordinarily good, crisply fried but seasoned with something like brown sugar, and are quickly devoured as we move onto a more wide-ranging discussion of the process and what it’s been like in the room. Nehemiah heaps love onto their onstage collaborators Cristina Pitter and Stanley Mathabane as well as the entire creative team, while Josh admits to some discomfort regarding the fact that they had only completed twenty-five percent of the score going into the first day of rehearsals, and up until a month or so before the start of rehearsal, they had not entirely identified an entry point into the piece. I ask, “Was it the right entry point?” There is a pause while this is considered.
Nehemiah: I think so… the way in has allowed us not only to write a show that people will find interesting and be surprised by, but it really allowed all of us to bring as much of ourselves to the process as we could.
Josh: We’re being slightly purposely cryptic about the entry point.
Dan: Should people watch this movie? I haven’t seen it. How many people do you assume have seen this movie?
Josh: We mostly assume they haven’t. We actually are working with the New School, and got a grant to work with this class there, “How Race Defines American Music,” and we were visiting class last week and were surprised that not only had no one seen it, which we were expecting, but no one had even heard of it. That, to me, was surprising. In my mind, it’s at least notorious. So… if anyone has to know something going in, it is that it was the first talkie, and that Al Jolson, at some point, puts on blackface. Those are the two things that we’ve realized that people do need to know going in.
Nehemiah: I would say, that it’s the first talkie, and that Al Jolson was a famous black face performer.
Josh: But no, you don’t have to watch it.
Around this juncture, Josh’s phone vibrates alarmingly. I quip, “Someone just quit,” which gets a laugh, but with an edge of slight discomfort.
Josh: I’ll just say: That was a process of finding the people who ultimately felt comfortable working on this piece. In all honesty, we’ve had to work through some shifts in the team, and I’d like to think we were always kind, I don’t know… there was always kindness — we try to take care of each-other as best we can, and…
Nehemiah: The process of going through all the difficulties that we have has brought all of us that have stayed on the process closer, I think we’ve learned a lot, and I think this will continue to vibrate out to the other projects that people are working on. …I constantly get the question, why did you sign on to this project? And the reason why is, the thought of it made me uncomfortable, and I needed to interrogate that. And through this piece, I feel like I’ve… interrogated.