One of the most dramatic events in Atlanta history will literally become drama when “The Temple Bombing” has its world premiere on the stage of the Alliance Theatre starting Feb. 22.
The play is based on Atlanta author Melissa Fay Greene’s bestselling 1996 non-fiction book. The work, which was a National Book Award finalist, describes the origins and aftermath of the events of Oct. 12, 1958, when Atlanta’s oldest and most prominent synagogue, Hebrew Benevolent Congregation Temple, was bombed in an anti-Semitic, white supremacist attack.
No one was killed or injured in the bombing, but the event nonetheless left deep scars in Atlanta, which had long touted itself as “the city too busy to hate.” Unlike in much of the rest of the South, desegregation of schools in Atlanta in the wake of 1954’s Brown v. Board of Education had occurred relatively smoothly and without overt violence. The bombing of the Temple, which had become supportive of the burgeoning civil rights movement under the guidance of its then-rabbi Jacob Rothschild, marred an otherwise seemingly pristine surface.
Many of the Atlanta personalities memorably featured in Greene’s book — Rabbi Rothschild (Todd Weeks) and his wife, Janice (Caitlin O’Connell), accused bomber George Bright (Eric Mendenhall), flamboyant defense attorney Reuben Garland (Ric Reitz) and more — become characters for the stage as the show’s creator and director Jimmy Maize guides the play into production.
“It purely felt right,” says Artistic Director Susan Booth of the impetus to produce the play at the Alliance, which sits just a few blocks from the Temple on Peachtree Street in Midtown. In 2015, Booth was approached by several members of the Temple’s congregation who suggested the Alliance become part of plans for the Temple’s 150th anniversary year with a new work inspired by the event.
Although Booth regularly hears pitches for potential plays and often has to decline, she says she knew immediately the idea was a perfect fit for the Alliance.
“We are in an American moment just now where we are confronting anew what unites and divides us. An opportunity to consider that question … as refracted through the lens of a previous historical moment seemed then, and seems now, deeply necessary,” she says.
To create the work, the Alliance partnered with New York’s Tectonic Theater Project, a company that specializes in creating plays based on historical events. The company’s previous plays include “The Laramie Project,” based on the murder of Matthew Shepard; “Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde,” based on the trials and imprisonment of the English author; and the Pulitzer Prize-winning “I am My Own Wife,” based on the life of German transvestite Charlotte von Mahlsdorf.
“The book is beautiful in its historical tapestry,” says Maize, a member of Tectonic since 2005, who was assigned the formidable task of transforming Greene’s monumental work of history into a play. Greene’s account of the Temple bombing traces the development of Atlanta’s Jewish community stretching back to the Civil War. It also touches on many Atlanta communities — black and white, Jewish and Christian — and examines how multiple strands of history factored into the events.
“It would be an eight-hour play if I were to try to tell that entire story,” says Maize. “Searching for the dramatic thrust was a challenge.”
Tectonic’s plays aren’t written as we typically think of a playwright sitting down to write a play, but instead they utilize found historical texts — interviews, oral histories, newspaper articles, sermons, courtroom testimony and so on — as the basis for the drama. Nearly every word spoken on stage in a Tectonic play was, at some point, spoken or written by a real historical figure. A play develops organically with director, actors and designers working and improvising together in the rehearsal room with historical texts, piecing a play together bit by painstaking bit. It too more than a year to create “The Temple Bombing.”
Greene, who began researching her book in the early 1990s, says she understands Maize’s challenge.
“Jimmy and I came up against some similar problems,” says Greene. “It’s a really complex story. Another is that a lot of the characters are pretty strongly aligned with what we would consider good or evil. Here we’ve got this incredibly decent and brave rabbi versus this sneaky, violence-prone neo-Nazi. Unless you’re trying to make a cartoon, you typically seek more subtlety and nuance in art.”
The dramatic story that Maize and his collaborators chose to focus on unfolds as a courtroom drama, the trial of one of the suspected bombers, George Bright. The play also dramatizes the tribulations and transformations of the Temple’s congregation as seen through the eyes of the rabbi’s wife, Janice Rothschild, who becomes the play’s narrator.
Other than seeing handful of scenes in rehearsal, Greene has been mostly hands-off on the project. She says the play will be as new to her on opening night as it will be to everyone else in the audience.
“What I most wanted was to ensure Jimmy that I saw this as his project, “ she says. “I did not want him looking over his shoulder and feeling I was judging in any way. Theater is a completely different art form. I’ve never written for the stage. I really respected him and his ability to do it.”
For Maize, the process has not just been about rehearsals and putting together a play, but also about contemplating the significance of history and getting to know the city’s people.
“As I speak to people in Atlanta, some people remember the bombing very well, but others have never heard of it,” he says. “Maybe looking at this footnote in the history books is important because we may be on that cusp again right now. We’re struggling daily to find how to respond to events that feel larger than us, that may be affecting a group that we’re hesitant to get into the fray for…. ‘The Temple Bombing’ is a story about a specific congregation with a very specific history. It’s a story of Atlanta. But it’s also a story of America.”
‘The Temple Bombing.’ Feb. 22-March 12. $10-55. Alliance Theatre, 1280 Peachtree Street NE, Atlanta. 404-733-4650.
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