Sunday, August 9th 2020   |

‘Freedom’ enjoys world premiere

When Joyce Pulitzer and David Seelig began to write a play back in 1998, neither of them could suspect that the project would develop the longest of legs. Over the course of several years they collaborated on a play in which an elderly Holocaust survivor would accost a young Irish immigrant at a U.S. naturalization center.

Lorraine LeBlanc and John Neisler star in "Freedom," a play about a Holocaust survivor and an Irish expatriate. (Photo by John Barrois)

Over the course of the next few years Pulitzer became a successful playwright when she and three other friends wrote “Cherries Jubilee,” a play that had an extended run at Southern Repertory Theatre and was remounted locally. Yet, she and Seelig kept returning to their play. Pulitzer knew it was missing something when Seelig’s health began to fail.

“The play was complete, but it wasn’t good,” she admitted in a CCJN interview. “It wasn’t right. We needed another voice. I’ve always believed what Hillary Clinton said that ‘You need a village to raise a child.'”

Pulitzer approached her friend Kitty Greenberg, who had been president of Touro synagogue and was the assistant to the headmaster at Isidore Newman School. She recalled Greenberg was reticent. “She said ‘I’ve never written a play. There’s a difference between reading a play and writing one,” Pulitzer remembered.

But Pulitzer wouldn’t take no for an answer. Using what she calls her “doctorate in chuzpah,”she left the play at Greenberg’s home and the three eventually began to run over the dialog and fine tune it. “The baby was the play,” Pulitzer said. “Whatever enriched the play, we did.”

Then, Greenberg’s health also began to suffer. In January of 2010 Seelig passed away.

Around that time Pulitzer’s friend and local theatre luminary Francine Siegal helped her secure actors for a reading for the play now simply titled “Freedom.” The local actor she enlisted was Sean Patterson, who was down for the summer between semesters while working on his second master’s degree at New York University’s Tisch School for the Arts.

JEF executive director Sandy Levy with playwright Joyce Pulitzer, right, at the fundraiser on Thursday, July 10 at the CAC. (Photo by Alan Smason)

Patterson was intrigued by the stories, but he felt the Irishman’s role of Danny was too factual and lacked the depth shown by the Holocaust survivor Yetta. “He had a lot of ideas,” Pulitzer said.

After the reading, he said he thought it was good enough to be staged just as it was. “I basically told them someone, somewhere would do it,” Patterson remembered, adding “But I think there are things you could do to make it a stronger play.”

Pulitzer asked Patterson how long he would be in New Orleans. “He said ‘I’m going to be here all summer,” she reminisced. “You’ve got a problem,” she shot back. “You’re the fourth writer.”

The three worked on the play as best they could through the summer. “As an actor, there wasn’t that much there for the Irish character as there was for Yetta. Her story was so playable,” Patterson revealed. “There wasn’t a lot of interaction; they sort of traded monologues.”

Patterson connected to Danny almost from the start. His role became less a collection of facts and more of a detailed character. The two characters of Yetta and Danny connected better in the play and longer dialogues were trimmed. They no longer merely traded monologues.

Greenberg and Pulitzer welcomed Patterson, whose experiences as both comic actor, director and playwright helped add more humor to the script. With three Jewish writers having contributed to the work, the Holocaust storyline was fairly well developed. Patterson knew the hard part would be to draw parallels with Danny’s past as a Catholic living in Northern Ireland.

Set in 1997 before the resolution of the conflict in Northern Ireland, there were additional challenges for Patterson. He felt he had to tone down Danny’s past with the Irish Republican Army so as to make him a more sympathetic character. “We had to find a place for him to exist that did not violate what the play needed him to do,” he said.

When Greenberg succumbed to cancer in September of 2011, the play was fairly well tweaked, but Pulitzer and Patterson continued to work on fine tuning the piece. Final scripts were prepared last year.

Southern Repertory Theatre’s artistic director Aimée Hayes read the script and was intrigued with the possibilities. “I liked the play first and foremost,” she related. “Both Sean and Joyce are writers that Southern Rep has worked with before,” Hayes explained. “I think they are part of our mission, which is to nurture our local artists, especially our writers. It’s an ongoing relationship and that’s what we do.”

Hayes, who had hoped to direct the project was unable to do so due to some health concerns so, after selecting Lorraine LeBlanc and John Niesler as the two actors, she turned over the direction to Mark Routhier, who had formerly worked with her at Southern Rep.

After a preview show on Wednesday and another fundraiser for Jewish Endowment Foundation of Louisiana (JEF) on Thursday night (see related story in the CCJN here), the world premiere of “Freedom” by Joyce PulitzerDavid Seelig, Kitty Greenberg and Sean Patterson opens officially tonight at the Contemporary Arts Center, 900 Camp Street as the final entry in of Southern Repertory’s 2012-13 season.

Tickets are available by phone by dialing 504-522-6545 or online by clicking here.

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