Happy Jewish American Heritage Month! Since 2006, the United States recognizes and celebrates Jewish contributions to American culture while reflecting on the history and challenges the community has faced throughout the month of May.
A Transparent Musical, which opens at the Mark Taper Forum at the end of the month, explores the intersection of Jewish and queer history. The brand-new musical follows the Pfeffermans, a Los Angeles Jewish family that is forced to confront their own identities when their parent, Maura, transitions to the transgender matriarch she always knew she was. In honor of Jewish American Heritage Month, we sat down with A Transparent Musical’s Adina Verson (they/she) to discuss the importance of Jewish and queer stories on stage, as well as their own relationship with theatre, their identity, and their heritage.
Verson was raised Jewish and grew up attending a reformed synagogue. One of their earliest memories involves a woman who would wear a kippah, which is traditionally worn by Jewish males to cover their heads. “I remember being fascinated by this person Verson questioned why she was allowed to wear one. Soon after, the prayer books at their temple changed all the pronouns for God to neutral pronouns. “Just a little change like that was so integral to understanding gender and spirituality,” they said.
Verson grew up in the Midwest and was involved in the arts from a young start. They participated in community theatre, was a member of the children’s choir, and always enjoyed acting. By high school, they were enrolled at an art school that encouraged students to attend college, which lead Verson to study musical theatre.
But as time went on, they found themselves not enjoying the art form. “I didn’t feel like I had a place in musical theatre,” they shared.
After four years, they decided to shift their focus and study acting in graduate school. Verson found themselves enjoying the craft, as it aided them in processing their own emotions and trauma. “I really felt like I could find myself in this place,” Verson shared. “I think I would go insane if I wasn’t an actor.”
Though they currently star in a Jewish and queer musical, Verson already carries familiarity in telling these stories onstage. In 2017, Verson starred in the Broadway production of Indecent and was also a cast member in the production the Ahmanson in 2019. In the show, Verson played various roles, including Rifkele, a Jewish and lesbian woman who falls for a prostitute who works at her father’s brothel.
Verson identifies as nonbinary, which has played a massive role in their life and understanding their own queerness. But their journey was still in progress while working on Indecent. “[It] made me realize that I don’t identify with being a woman, and I don’t identify with being a lesbian,” they shared.
But even while coming to terms with their own identity, Verson found beauty in the production, as it was an opportunity to showcase the intersection between the Jewish and queer communities.
Verson also found Indecent to be important as it explored a different side of Jewish history. “As a Jewish kid, all we did in Sunday school was talk about the Holocaust,” they shared. “[It’s} very important but traumatizing. During Indecent, I feel like I was able to explore different parts of Jewish history that are not put at the forefront of Jewish education.”
The cast was able to visit the Jewish Museum, where there were different kinds of menorahs on display. Verson was interested to see how different each menorah was to one another and contributes this to the individuality and progression of the Jewish experience.
“I feel like I truly learned what the Jewish Diaspora is, in that it’s this huge umbrella,” they shared. This helped Verson understand the progression of the Jewish experience throughout history, and how the community has grown and evolved in the face of adversity.
“I learned in Indecent that, during WWII, [when] people immigrated to the United States, the goal was to assimilate, and that’s where reformed Judaism came from,” they shared. “People wanted to assimilate because they had never been accepted into a culture.”
In A Transparent Musical, Verson plays Ali, who goes on their own journey of identity and self-discovery after grappling with their parents' own transition. The process of creating a queer and Jewish musical has been rewarding for Verson in many ways.
“It means so much to have a character like [Ali,]” they shared. “I have struggled for so long in not feeling queer enough. I’m married to a man. I have a child....and so I always feel like I am not seen as queer.”
But for Verson, being in a room with other nonbinary, transgender, and gender expansive performers has made them feel seen and a part of the community. Verson also feels that a role like Ali showcases the infinite possibilities of being nonbinary. They find this to come at a pivotal time, when stories about the gender spectrum are being placed within a binary.
“It’s been boxed in again, and I love that Ali’s journey is really in the gray area and not defined,” they said. “I really hope that other people like me feel accepted into the queer community regardless of where on the spectrum they are.”
As audiences walk into the Mark Taper Forum, they are transported to a Jewish Community Center, (JCC) where the heart of A Transparent Musical takes places. The Taper has been transformed to look like a JCC, with community posters and event fliers decorating its walls. For Verson, seeing the set and walls of the show has made them feel at home.
“Similar to the gender spectrum, I feel like [the Jewish spectrum] isn’t often explored,” they noted. “So many Jewish plays and stories are pre-Holocaust, before Judaism branched into different practices.”
For Verson, stories that focus on Orthodox or specific practices of Judaism don’t feel as familiar, as they didn’t practice in those specific sects. “Kind of like my queerness, it’s a thing where I identify with this, but I still feel on the outside. To have a story about reformed Judaism within a JCC is amazing to feel on the inside of.”
Verson hopes that Jewish audiences feel at home as well while watching A Transparent Musical, and that non-Jewish audiences also feel welcomed. “It’s about bringing people together instead of keeping people apart,” they shared.
Creating a welcome environment for all is important to the heart of A Transparent Musical, as it embodies the act of acceptance and inclusivity for all while still creating a space for the marginalized. Verson feels it's important to ask who the audience is of the intended art and finds the show to be a symbol of that mission.
“This show does an incredible job of being inclusive,” they shared. “It’s such a diverse cast.... people from all walks of life that have all had a voice in the room.”
The show also provides the opportunity to heal as a community with theatre as the medium. With the actors onstage telling the story, it creates a connection between the audience and performer that resonates with one's empathy. Though the transgender and Jewish communities have faced adversity, Verson finds that telling these stories is important for a culture to survive.
“It takes the foundational Jewish saying of “never forget” and really explores what that means,” they shared. “Hopefully [it] will make people see how much joy and possibility there is now and will help us to not repeat mistakes." As antisemitism and transphobia rises throughout the country, Verson finds that A Transparent Musical can counter those notions simply by existing. “I think it puts trans, queer, Jewish human beings in front of you, and I feel like that's all you need,” they said. “You just need to see that it’s a human being. And we all have the same goal. We all want to live safe, respected lives.”