A timely playExplores antisemitism in the arts world

Rootless Cosmopolitans

"Isn’t that how we as Jews deal with the struggles and challenges of life ... You’ve got to’laugh or else you go bananas," says Anton Berezin

Anton Berezin in Rootless Cosmopolitans.
Anton Berezin in Rootless Cosmopolitans.

A new play, Rootless Cosmopolitans, that explores antisemitism in the arts world, written before October 7, seems prescient for current times. In the wake of figures in the arts world denying Jewish creatives ‘cultural safety’, if they support Israel, a play grappling with issues of antisemitism, identity politics and social media sounds like just what the doctor ordered.

Well, the doctor did order it, as it was written by renowned playwright and Australian physician Ron Elisha, who recently received two Broadway awards for his off-Broadway play Anne Being Frank. Elisha teamed up with accomplished performer Anton Berezin, to produce Rootless Cosmopolitans together. Berezin, who has a long history in musical theatre and opera, also stars in the lead role of Ira Brot – a successful artistic theatre director who had the world at his feet until he sent out a tweet. The play is directed by Suzanne Heywood, and also stars Emily Joy, Seon Williams and Babs McMillan.

The term “rootless cosmopolitans” refers to Stalin’s euphemistic pejorative for ‘Jew’ – the eternal outsider. When The AJN asked Berezin what inspired the play, he said, “It’s about the strange place that Jewish people hold in the arts as a microcosm, but also in the greater community as a whole, how we sort of slip through the cracks of the diversity conversation … We don’t factor in the discussions of oppression and race, white privilege and colonisation and all these hot-button topics of the moment.”

Berezin expressed that he also felt connected to the story as someone who identified with the left, but now feels rejected by it as a Jew. “I’ve always considered myself a very left-leaning individual politically. But the left sort of abandoned us, it’s abandoned the Jews. In the last election I was handing out leaflets for the Greens at polling booths, and I am just appalled, constantly appalled and shocked at how antisemitic they appear to be now.”

Stressing the importance of this play post-October 7, Berezin commented, “It would be very easy as artists to blend into the background and try to look after our careers individually and stay silent on these topics – try to keep our heads down – but it’s the wrong thing to do. I feel really strongly that we all have to take a principled stand, and use our voices as artists to speak for truth and empathy and kindness.”

Berezin is president of the Green Room Awards Association for Victorian Theatre. The AJN spoke to him the night after the Green Room Awards, where he said these issues came to the fore: “I expected to hear someone say ‘From the River to the Sea’ and a couple of people did get up and talk about ‘Free Palestine’ … Then towards the end of the night, a writer won an award for a play that I actually loved, and his entire speech was about ‘Death to Zionism’. It was so vile and so painful, and I was standing backstage shaking and there was nothing I could do … It was a very visceral reminder of why this play is important and why those of us in the arts who are Jewish, must speak up for ourselves and for each other.”

As to what he hopes the audience will take away from the play, Berezin said, “I just hope people will feel connected and feel heard and understood. It is a comedy. We’ve grappled with the fact that it’s a comedy because it’s such a serious topic. But isn’t that how we as Jews deal with the struggles and challenges of life … You’ve got to laugh or else you go bananas.”

Regarding the challenges this very Jewish play has faced in its promotion, Berezin noted, “What’s been astonishing to me is that the mainstream media are not interested in this at all. They don’t want to discuss this.”

Berezin said that for him this play was an opportunity to connect to his Jewish roots, “I’ve never specifically marketed a play or anything I’ve done to the Jewish community. This is a first for me, and it’s been a long journey connecting with my roots. I came here as a refugee from Russia when I was a child. I’m one of the refusenik refugees from the 1970s. We were terribly disconnected from our Jewish heritage, so, it took me a long time, well into adulthood, to really reclaim that and own it. So, this for me is a rite of passage and it feels very important: to say to the world proudly, I’m a Jew – always have been, always will be … It’s in my DNA, it’s in my kids’ DNA. It’s a great heritage that we’re surviving through all the challenges that we’ve faced over the millennia and still contribute so much positivity to the world.”

Berezin would like to take this play to Sydney, but in the meantime hopes Sydneysiders will make their way to Melbourne to see this important play. He said, “I would love people to come and see this. It’s 90 minutes. It’s one act. It’s short and sharp, and to the point, it’s funny and we’ve got fabulous actors in it.”

Rootless Cosmopolitans is showing at Chapel Off Chapel from May 15 to June 2.

For tickets: chapeloffchapel.com.au/show/rootless-cosmopolitans-by-ron-elisha

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