News From Terre Haute, Indiana

October 27, 2013

‘Abraham’s Family’: New musical illuminates common ground, value of respect the three Abrahamic faiths can share

Mark Bennett
The Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — At a table inside a Denny’s in Terre Haute on a July night in 2012, a trio of theatrical writers conjured a bold idea.

They considered creating a musical based on the story of Abraham, a religious figure to whom three faiths — Judaism, Christianity and Islam — trace their ancestries.

One of the writers, Andrew Park — an Indiana State University grad working in Chicago — had written and staged a play, “Abraham’s Calling,” using a similar theme a decade earlier. It presented Abraham as a symbol of hope for reconciliation and dialogue among Jews, Christians and Muslims. Leaders from each faith participated in a conversation with audience members after each Chicago show.

“It sounded fascinating to me,” said Arthur Feinsod, another of the writers and a theater professor at ISU.

They assembled writers from each religious background — Feinsod, who is Jewish; Park and composer Scott Lamps, who are Christians; and Rohina Malik, a Muslim playwright whose one-woman show, “Unveiled,” packed ISU’s New Theater last year.

Together, they’ve crafted a new musical, “Abraham’s Family,” which will be produced for the 2014 Crossroads Repertory Theatre season in Terre Haute. A grant through Arts Illiana will enable the ensemble to perform the production at two churches, a temple and a mosque next summer, too. “Abraham’s Family” then makes its world premiere next autumn in Chicago.

The script, still evolving, features two acts. The first centers on the story of Abraham and the son, who Abraham was prepared to sacrifice, as God commanded, before an angel intervened. The second act focuses on a modern-day family, with a Christian mother and two sons — one a convert to Judaism, another a convert to Islam. The sons and their mother venture into topics of entrenched disagreements.

“We wanted to raise some of the controversial issues,” Feinsod said, “especially in the contemporary setting.”

Lighter moments emerge, too. The sons also split their baseball loyalties, with one backing the Chicago White Sox and the other the crosstown Cubs. “It’s a low-stakes conflict that eases some of the tension,” Feinsod said of the sports rivalry. After a “read-through, sing-through” presentation of “Abraham’s Family” by the Crossroads Repertory Theatre at ISU last summer, where audience members filled out evaluation forms, the playwrights considered adding the skeptical voice of an atheist to the family, which could turn out to be a source of humor, Feinsod said.

That voice also presents a bonding point. “That’s where the three religions come together, in answering that atheism,” Feinsod said.

Post-performance feedback has influenced the project. Malik was in the audience in 2003 at Chicago to see Park’s initial “Abraham’s Calling.”

“She remembers, as do I, the hopeful tone of the talkback she participated in,” Park explained. “Theater brought folks from all three faiths together to have conversation about what’s happening between our three faiths. We have to do something. We have to learn how to respect and love each other. A show and a conversation — it’s a promising model, and Abraham is the perfect symbol for peace, acceptance and love.”

The evaluation form distributed during the read-through at ISU asked audience members to rate everything from the production’s originality to its plot, characters, dialogue, music and theme. It asked if and why any elements were offensive. The reviewers held nothing back. “It was a remarkable response,” Feinsod said. “It gave us lots of information, and it was all over the map — some that was extremely positive, some that was extremely negative, and some in between.”

The 62-year-old Feinsod grew up in Roslyn, N.Y., a village on Long Island’s north shore. The community was 90 percent Jewish, he said, “so I grew up thinking the majority of the world was Jewish.” As he went on to a preparatory high school at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., Feinsod realized that wasn’t the case. He drew inspiration from his Jewish grandfather, who had to sneak into college to get an education. With degrees from Harvard, Cal-Berkeley and New York University, Feinsod holds an affinity for education, the arts and people “who feel like outsiders.”

Respect drives the “Abraham’s Family” project, too.

“I think our goal is to achieve a level of respect among religions, rather than tolerance,” Feinsod said. “‘Tolerance’ can be a very negative word. Tolerance kind of means, I’ll stay on my side of the road, and you stay on yours, and we won’t beat each other up.”

The contributors see the musical illuminating similarities.

“My hope is that the play will help people realize that we are more similar than we are different,” said Malik, whose hometown is Chicago.

Lamps, the 33-year-old composer from Wisconsin, said, “In a time when our religious differences are trumpeted far and wide, we often believe that there is a vast divide between Christians and Muslims, Christians and Jews, or Muslims and Jews. We would like ‘Abraham’s Family’ to remind the audience that what we share far outweighs our differences. We are all branches of the same tree and should not forget our roots.”

When dealing with religious subjects, even the concept of shared interests can be divisive.

“The theme [of the musical] — which is, interestingly, more controversial than we thought it would be — is that there are many ways to God,” Feinsod said. The writers understand “there are people in all three faiths who won’t” agree, Feinsod added.

Real as the differences are, the common threads — often overwhelmed — provide a great opportunity, Park pointed out.

“I believe that Abraham is a potential symbol of reconciliation between Judaism, Christianity and Islam,” Park said. “What if we spent more time remembering what we have in common, instead of fighting about our differences?”

The project yielded the Individual Artist Grant from the Indiana Arts Commission for Feinsod, who’s served as artistic director of Crossroads Repertory Theatre since arriving in Terre Haute in 2001. Another Arts Illiana grant allows the CRT to present “Abraham’s Family” at a handful of local houses of worship.

“I hope people will come to this with an open mind,” Feinsod said, “and I think [the writers] need to keep an open mind, too, as we create these characters, to see the blindspots. That’s the message — how important it is to keep an open mind and an open heart.”

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.