“Exploring Home, History & Family in TOUGH JEWS” In Conversation with playwright Michael Ross Albert and actor G. Kyle Shields
Interview by Brittany Kay
I sat down with two delightful men with 3 names – playwright Michael Ross Albert and actor G. Kyle Shields to talk about their current production Tough Jews, running March 31 – April 16th. We spoke about the undeniable parallels in the sociopolitical climates we see today versus 100 years ago, why this story is incredibly important to stage now and how family is at the core of everything.
Brittany Kay: Tell me a little bit about the show.
G. Kyle Shields: This is how I’ve been pitching it to people: it’s a Kensington-specific, period gangster drama that takes place in 1933.
Michael Ross Albert: Well the Second Act takes place in 1933.
GKS: Yeah, yeah. I’m just keeping it concise for people.
MRA: The first act takes place in 1929 on Yom Kippur, which was 10 days before the Stock Market crashed. We follow this family over the course of two moments of crisis.
GKS: In 1933, it’s only a couple of months after Hitler becomes chancellor of Germany.
MRA: And it’s at a moment not dissimilar to the political climate we’re in now, where the mounting anti-immigrants sentiments and Anti-Semitism is very prevalent all across North America, including very specifically Toronto, Ontario. The second act takes place shortly after the riot at Christie Pitts.
GKS: Do you know about the Christie Pitts riot?
BK: I do, I’m Jewish.
GKS: You know, most people don’t know about the riot.
MRA: I guess I realized what a bubble I lived in, in realizing how culturally significant that moment is for Toronto Jewish families. If you’re from here and your grandparents are from here, everyone has a story about the Riot or the time surrounding the Riot. It’s a big part of our Torontonian cultural heritage that’s sort of being forgotten.
GKS: And not really passed down outside of those circles too. I didn’t know about the riot before I read the show.
MRA: It was considered one of the biggest race riots in Canadian history. It’s pretty insane.
BK: Is Toronto Jewish history your main inspiration for this piece? Where did the inspiration come from to write this story?
MRA: I had originally set out to write a play about the Purple Gang, which was a Detroit family, made up of first generation Jewish immigrants who kind of briefly inserted themselves into the major big time American crime families. For a short period, they were terrible criminals.
GKS: They were reckless. They were absolutely reckless.
MRA: They were responsible for the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, which was one of the biggest gangland assassinations ever. I became pretty interested and started reading up on the different exploits that they were involved in and I wanted to write about them.
I realized that Detroit itself needed to become another character of the play but I have no personal connection to Detroit nor have I ever been there. I didn’t feel like I had the wherewithal to write about a city that I wasn’t from.
So I started thinking about this period of time that my grandparents would have lived in and the neighborhood that they’re from. I started researching that period and found all of these wonderful parallels to what I had initially been interested in. By shifting my focus it let me speak to the experiences that my family comes from and to make it a story about my city, so I was able to romanticize its past, but also be critical of it at the same time.
BK: How did you find your way into the hearts and minds of these people?
MRA: It was really about personalizing their experiences and thinking about the psychology of these types of people.
GKS: Who were also marginalized.
MRA: Yeah definitely. Marginalized people who were doing illegal activities…
GKS: They were forced to do illegal activities, because they didn’t have job opportunities like the rest of the population had.
MRA: They were trying to make the most of a bad situation, which comes with a moral compromise. Each of the characters within this story has a different place where they draw the line of that morality. Each of them exists within this familial structure and has a different relationship towards one another.
GKS: They were very actively secluded from the rest of society. Signs legitimately said, “No dogs. No Jews. Gentiles only.”
MRA: Yeah, those were signs that were hung up here. When buying real estate, going to the beach…
GKS: Going to hotels… There was almost an Anti-Discrimination Policy that got proposed to Parliament in, I want to say somewhere in the 1910s, that was very similar to the government’s Anti-Islamophobia law that’s currently being debated. It was intended to denounce Anti-Semitism, but the counter argument was, of course, it would hinder free speech. What ended up happening was that it gave a lot of Torontonians the license to put up those signs.
MRA: That’s where we come from and it exploded in this massive display of violence that went through an entire night with the riot at Christie Pitts.
The neighborhoods were so segregated. The city did not welcome immigrants. We had a Prime Minister that said, “None is too many.”
BK: So how does all of this comment on Toronto now and then?
MRA: It’s taking a look at Toronto, which has become the most multicultural city in the world, and looking at what needed to happen in order to get here.
GKS: To go from a point where the city was 80% British to what we are now.
MRA: Within a lifetime. Within a couple of generations. The spooky thing and the really unfortunate thing is that we are seeing now, after all of this amazing progress, a resurgence of incredibly similar sentiments against Jews, against Muslims, against the LGBTQ community.
BK: All of this rich history, how does it make its way into the play?
GKS: The events of this history directly affect all of the characters and affect their decisions and how they live their lives and the actions they take in the play. A lot of what the characters are doing, are reacting to the historical events, whether or not they know it or whether or not they think it.
BK: For the people who have spent their whole lives in Toronto and have never heard about the riot at Christie Pitts, is this explained and talked about?
MRA: Absolutely. It’s really just the given circumstances of the play. The play isn’t so much a history lesson as it is a family drama that takes place against the backdrop of these critical events in our city’s history.
BK: So family is that core of your story? Why is that such an integral part of it?
MRA: When I was doing my research on the Purple Gang, I was going through my old notes and I wrote on the first page in big capital letters, “WHAT WAS THEIR MOTHER LIKE?”
GKS: There’s a certain something that the matriarch of this family goes through that propels all of her choices. Where she comes from is a major motivation and she makes a point to instill that in her children. “Never forget.” She never lets them forget about where they came from.
MRA: It all begins with family. Their business exploits, their major sources of conflict, of escapism, and love come from within this family unit. I really wanted to be able to explore history from a very personal place and to me the logical start was by creating this family.
GKS: It explores this family enterprise. There are secrets that they keep from one another. There are things that they do to protect one another that involve manipulation and deceit.
MRA: They’re living in extreme times and circumstances, but I’m hoping those tactics are still relatable to everyone because families are fucked up.
GKS: Families are fucked up.
BK: Very true. Very relatable.
GKS: Not only that, all they’ve got are each other. They don’t have the option to move somewhere else and restart their lives.
BK: G. Kyle, tell me about your character and how he fits into this dysfunction?
GKS: I play Teddy, who’s the youngest son of four. He has an older sister and two older brothers. The two older brothers run whatever racket they have going on. As the youngest, as it usually goes, Teddy is very much kept out of the loop. As the youngest in real life, I can relate to that.
In the first Act he’s about 19, so he’s pretty young but he’s coming into his own. We see him trying to be the thing that everyone else in the play wants him to be. Everybody makes a demand of Teddy. There’s a traumatic event that happens through the course of the First Act that informs the four years between Act 1 and Act 2. When we see Teddy in Act 2, we can see how they’ve changed him into who he is now. In a sense, we get to see him grow up. We see this really informed shift in his choices and his personal honour system and values and morality.
BK: Tell me about the pop-up location, the speakeasy, and how it’s going to be an immersive audience experience.
MRA: The Storefront unfortunately lost its permanent home and as soon as we heard the news, we tried to think of it as a blessing in disguise for this particular production. We found this space, Kensington Hall, which is an old punk club.
GKS: It used to be an old booze can and two people have died there.
MRA: Maybe more people have died there.
GKS: May have been murder… Does that sell the show, do you think? That could be a selling feature?
GKS: I mean, it sells it for me.
MRA: We’re working with this amazing set designer named Adam Belanger, who has completely transformed the space. We’re creating a time machine essentially. It’s going to be a speakeasy experience, where the audience will enter through the back alley and as soon as you walk through the door it will be as if you have stepped back in time to the 1920s.
GKS: And when you take your seat too, it’s like you will be a fly on the wall.
MRA: The audience is complicit in the action. It’s not an immersive production, but it is site-specific and right in your face.
GKS: It’s gonna be loud. No one will be able to fall asleep in the theatre.
BK: Why this story right now?
MRA: I mean personally it was my final project of school. I studied playwriting and it was my graduate project. Over the years, it has been developed at different companies all over the place. I had finally come to a place where I thought it was ready for a production. Current events just happen to unfold around it.
BK: Wow. What timing.
MRA: I didn’t write it with any kind of agenda.
GKS: You went into history and took this out and of course it happens to apply right now.
MRA: There are sentiments expressed in the play about the refugee crisis in the 1930s and the unwillingness of governments in Canada and the US to accept refugees. I felt around this time last year that it was important to remind people what that sentiment and the effects of those government policies have on the families. That contributed to thinking about doing the play sooner rather than later, but really, the world turned, it feels like, on a dime, you know? We’re seeing a legitimization of hatred and intolerance, which is very common to the circumstances these people in the play. It’s not specific to Jews, although the play is, but it does carry with it those universal themes of communities that are marginalized, who feel vulnerable in the face of governmental policies that exclude them from the norm.
GKS: …and excludes them from protection from that discrimination.
MRA: I’m so angry at the world right now, that it feels like a very important time for me personally to be staging this play.
GKS: That’s exactly what drew me into this play – that realization of the repetition of history. How I can see the patterns in my world today that are happening in the play as well. Then reading about the riot and the political events surrounding that time just kind of compounded all of that. We’re living in a time of increased intolerance and we need to remember what that does.
MRA: When the second act begins in 1933, we as an audience know there’s a dramatic irony in that we know politically what’s about to happen. This family and Teddy specifically are railing against the circumstances that they’re living in and they think that there’s a way to overcome it. We as the audience know that it’s going to get much darker before any type of light can shine through, before the city and the world can respect and welcome people that aren’t necessarily like themselves. I don’t think it’s so awful to remind contemporary audiences that the spectrum goes to an incredibly dark place.
BK: What do you want audiences walking away with?
GKS: That might be a Ben question. (Cue Director Benjamin Blais who has happened to walk by our table!)
BK: Yes, Ben, join our interview!
Benjamin Blais: I want people to walk away with a realization and sense of responsibility. One of the aspects of our production that I’ve extended or posed the challenge to the designers and to the actors in their portrayal is the concept of Photo Realism. Audiences are going to walk down this graffitied alleyway and turn the corner and walk into a door and, because of the fine work of Adam Belanger and the entire design team, it’s going to be like walking through a veil of time. They’re going to bare witness to this story of this family in a period of unrest and growth and then they’ll walk right out again into today’s world. But because it’s in Kensington Market, in a place where this speakeasy probably existed, they’ll be forced to recognize that they’re standing in a place where all of this happened. I want them to be able to look around say, “Holy shit, is the drama and the extremes of what I just saw still happening today? Is it happening to me?”
One of the themes that Michael is working with is this concept of the sins of our ancestors being repeated upon ourselves. Our choices, our ethics, our behaviour, our actions… What are the consequences to the people we love and how does that affect the society as a whole? What we become in order to survive… We do it with the best intentions to protect the family but what are the ramifications of that? I just want people when they’re watching it to really feel like flies on the wall. When they’re able to come out and be active in their world again to think: “What am I doing? How do I treat other people? What am I doing to survive?… I’m contemplating life of crime-oh shit don’t say that.”
But seriously, steal a little piece of bread to feed my family. Am I criminal? Are corporations oppressing people much like fascist nations were of the time? What do we have to do on the day-to-day to put food in our bellies? Are we animals? Are we really criminals?
BK: Nice. So happy you sat down.
GKS: I want people to walk away with the feeling that it really could have happened exactly that way. That it was a reality that it could and can still exist.
MRA: I always want an audience to walk away with a deeper, more developed sense of empathy. I think that in showing these particular characters, warts and all, that the audience should be able to find themselves in each of them. That they can think about the people and the relationships in their own lives that they could understand better. Whether that relates to politics or their community or just their immediate families and loved ones, so long as they can see that even if people are acting terribly, that there’s something relatable in them and universal that we share.
Written by Michael Ross Albert
Directed by Benjamin Blais*
Starring: Blue Bigwood-Mallin, Luis Fernandes, Stevie Joffe*, Anne van Leeuwen, G Kyle Shields, Theresa Tova*, Maaor Ziv
Set Designer: Adam Belanger
Costume Designer: Lindsay Dagger
Make Up Artist: Angela McQueen
Fight Director: Simon Fon*
*Appear with permission of the Canadian Actors’ Equity Association. This is a Canadian Actors’ Equity Association production under the Artists’ Collective Policy.
When a murder is committed in Prohibition-era Kensington Market, a family of would-be criminals is suddenly flung into the high-stakes gangland world of American organized crime. Set against the backdrop of the Roaring Twenties, the Great Depression, and the one of the largest riots in Canadian history, this darkly comedic historical drama is the story of an immigrant family’s struggle to rise above their station in a violent, intolerant city.
56K Kensington Ave. (back alley entrance)
Please note: This space is not wheelchair accessible.
March 31st – April 16th