It took 20 years—or 100 years, depending on how you count—for Indecent to get to Broadway. It all started in Poland in 1907, when a young Yiddish writer named Sholem Asch wrote a play called God of Vengeance. Or perhaps it all started in the stacks of the library at Yale Law School in the late 1990s, when a graduate drama student encountered the transcripts of the 1923 obscenity trial against the Broadway cast and producer of God of Vengeance.
That graduate drama student, Rebecca Taichman, who has been called “the foremost interpreter of the contemporary work of Jewish women onstage,” became obsessed by the story of God of Vengeance and what happened to it. That obsession, over the next two decades, would lead her to a collaboration with a famous playwright, the creation of a new play adored by audiences and critics around the country, her Broadway debut, a Tony Award® nomination for Best Play, a Tony Award for Best Director, and now, a production at the Ahmanson Theatre in Downtown Los Angeles, where Indecent is onstage June 5 – July 7, 2019.
But before all that, there was Sholem Asch and God of Vengeance. “Sholem Asch is in his 20s when he writes this extraordinary story of a family who runs a brothel in their basement. The father-slash-pimp is obsessed with the piety of his young daughter who lives upstairs above the brothel, and he’s shielding her from everything, basically,” explained Taichman. “He’s arranging a marriage with a Yiddish scholar for her, he forbids her from going down into the basement, and of course she finds her way down there, and she falls madly in love with one of the woman prostitutes.”
God of Vengeance became a hit across Europe and in 1923, was translated into English for a Broadway production. But its run was cut short after six weeks by the arrests of the cast and producer on obscenity charges. The trial transcript inspired Taichman to create a play called The People vs.The God of Vengeance; the script consisted of all found materials, and it became her graduate thesis.
Taichman was fascinated by Asch because “he sort of threw every explosive issue into this one concoction. He proved throughout his life to be someone who really elicited controversy constantly.” She also loved his text. “If we hadn’t stumbled across the obscenity trial, I would have tried to stage the play,” she said. “It’s an extraordinary, complicated story about so many different things. It’s this beautiful lesbian love story written by this man. And it’s about the hypocritical nature of religion and piety; there’s a very damning portrait of a rabbi in that play. And it’s a questioning of the wrathful nature of God.”
Taichman wanted to tell the story of Asch and God of Vengeance, but she wasn’t quite sure how. “I left school feeling like I had to caretake this memory or somehow try, the best that I could, to keep this memory alive,” she said. Years later, she had her chance when the Oregon Shakespeare Festival offered her a commission and a friend suggested she ask Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Paula Vogel to be her collaborator.
“It turned out she knew the play very well, and it meant a great deal to her. It was sort of like finding another Trekkie. She had an equal-sized obsession,” said Taichman. “My memory is I almost hadn’t completed the sentence, and she said yes. And then we embarked on this extraordinary process in which I learned a tremendous amount from her. And she was the perfect person to write a story that was much bigger than anything I had dreamed of.”
Vogel expanded the story Taichman had begun to stretch far beyond the obscenity trial. “It would tell the story of the birth of the play, from 1907, through the moment when Asch would forbid its production in the ’50s. It was a way to look at this massive swath of history through the lens of one piece of art.” That history includes the decline of Yiddish, rising anti-Semitism, American immigration reform, and the Holocaust.
“At its heart, Indecent is about love winning over forces of hate. And a struggle for that. It sort of barely does. But tragically, really, I think this is a fight that continues throughout all our history,” said Taichman. “The story of God of Vengeance and of Indecent is also the story of immigrant populations coming to America and really being rejected and being scared, feeling they had to assimilate and fast. This play representing them on American stages was very dangerous. At the moment God of Vengeance opened in New York, massive immigration reform was happening, just like it’s happening here, where the doors were getting locked.”
That part of the story has only become more relevant since Indecent was first produced in 2015. “The story that Indecent is telling becomes more everyday, and resonates with what we’re going through in a more and more obvious way,” said Taichman. “My hope is that every person who walks into the Ahmanson will be profoundly moved by the story, that it will motivate people to keep fighting against the forces of hate that are taking over our culture, and that it will invite you to sort of tumble into this exquisite love story.”