(Michael Feingold’s article appeared in the Village Voice, 11/20.)
'She's a big star in musical comedy," says the love-struck young man, showing his mother a photo of his sweetheart. "Ain't that a shame!" his mother exclaims. "Such a nice girl, too!" Yes, the battle lines are clearly drawn in Samson Raphaelson's 1925 play, The Jazz Singer (the Connelly Theater). But where those lines would once have separated society blue bloods from raffish stage folk, in plays like Pinero's Trelawny of the 'Wells' (1898), Raphaelson redraws them to mark, for Americans, the border an ethnic minority must cross to assimilate.
The love-struck young man (Justin Flagg) is The Jazz Singer's hero, once Jakie Rabinowitz but now calling himself Jack Robin. Descended from five generations of Jewish cantors, Jack desperately wants to cross over; his American-born instincts inherently combat his father, Yossele (Charles E. Gerber), hero of the Orchard Street synagogue. And like his goyish sweetheart, Mary Dale (Christine Bullen), who does come from the landed gentry, Jack has located the crossover point where America's classes and ethnic groups meet: the musical theater. Having discovered that the cantorial sob that his father trained into his voice enables him to put over "jazz" songs, Jack blots out his Jewishness, at least onstage, by donning blackface.