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There Is a Story We Want to Tell You

A Note from 'Indecent' Playwright Paula Vogel


The cast of 'Indecent.'

Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

There is a story we want to tell you.

I was sixteen in high school when I realized I could forge my mother's signature on sick notes. And so I would go to the Library of Congress on the bus. There, I would ask for out-of-print novels about lesbian life from the 1920s, 30s, and 50s. The sweet librarians didn't card me. I read these pulp novels with a growing dismay: they ended with the protagonist crying to heaven, “why can't I be normal?” Or the girlfriend married a man who rescued her. Or worse yet, a la Lillian Hellman, there were a lot of suicides.

Flash forward to me as a student at Cornell in the throes of coming out. Professor Bert States gently said: "I think you should read God of Vengeance."

I raced to the library, found a yellowing copy of an out-of-print translation, and stood in the stacks. I couldn't put the play down. When I reached the second act, I was stunned. A young married man, Sholem Asch, wrote this love scene between two women in 1907? To this day I have not read as beautiful a scene between two women, one that accorded their love the pure desire of Romeo and Juliet on the balcony.

Flash forward: A young director, Rebecca Taichman is standing in the stacks of the library at Yale University, some 20 years later, reading an out-of-print copy of Asch's play. Struck by the play, she determines to stage the 1923 obscenity trial of God of Vengeance, which presented the first kiss between two women on the American stage.

The People Versus God of Vengeance became her directing thesis. The rest, as they say, is history. Somehow, flash forward, we find each other. During the past seven years we have continued to work and celebrate and mourn the stories of artists and stages that were steps along the way until this moment in time.

I didn't anticipate that Indecent would be as relevant today as it is; we again are witnessing an upheaval of fear, xenophobia, homophobia, and yes, anti-Semitism. We are in the midst of the strongest white nationalism since the 1920s when American borders were closed to immigrants. In this moment of time we must say that we are all Muslim. We must reclaim the importance of our arcs and culture. We must remember where the closing of borders in the 20th century led nations around the globe.

Lastly, a few words on what I believe. I believe the purpose of theatre is to wound our memory so we can remember. We form memory as infants: we can remember when we acquire language to retrieve that memory. I hope that the acquisition of Yiddish in the rain scene helps us remember the culture and lives that existed before 1940. Theatre is living memory.

It is said that in the last moments of our existence our lives flash before our eyes. I am a lucky woman: the theatre has been my life. And so, I hope one of the last images I see will be moments of these actors, this troupe, this journey. Thank you for joining us.

Paula Vogel, Playwright

This letter was originally published in the playbill of the 2017 Broadway production of Indecent.

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