Actor’s Express Production Explores French Antisemitism
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Actor’s Express Production Explores French Antisemitism

New production of the off-Broadway hit, “Prayer For The French Republic,” looks at antisemitism in the lives of five generations of a French Jewish family.

The Actor's Express production of "Prayer For The French Republic," centers around a contemporary French Jewish family // Photo Credit: Casey Ford
The Actor's Express production of "Prayer For The French Republic," centers around a contemporary French Jewish family // Photo Credit: Casey Ford

A new drama that focuses on the dilemma facing Jews in modern-day France is opening on April 14 at Actor’s Express, the theater company at the King Plow Center on Atlanta’s West Side. The play, “Prayer for the French Republic,” tells the story of how one French family comes to grips with the rising tide of antisemitism in France. It opened to generally strong reviews in its off-Broadway debut last year.

With antisemitism an important issue in American life, director Freddie Ashley, who is also the artistic director of Actor’s Express, thought the time was right for the local production.

“The current moment, given the rise of antisemitism and antisemitic crimes, is precisely what the characters in the story are dealing with. It’s set in a time six years ago, seven years ago now, but antisemitism has only continued to escalate throughout Europe. and in our own country. So, it just seems like we need to be telling stories, I think, to fight this.”

Freddy Ashley, director of “Prayer for the French Republic,” is encouraged by the new voices, like Joshua Harmon, in contemporary theater.

The play’s author, Joshua Harmon, is a Jewish native New Yorker, who, while he looks at developments far from home, has created an American character named, Molly, a 20-year-old who draws us into the issues facing the distant relatives she visits in Paris.

When Daniel, the 20-something son of her relatives, the Benhamous family, returns after being roughed up on the street by antisemites, his father, Charles, a Parisian doctor, is forced to face a question that haunts him. Although his family has lived in France for hundreds of years, he asks “Are we safe? Or is it time to leave?”

The words become a recurring theme in the play that has had particular resonance for Adir Lev Mann, who plays Daniel, the Benhamous’ observant, kipah-wearing son. Mann lived in Israel as a child, and he visited Paris to prepare for the role.

The role of Daniel in “Prayer for the French Republic,” is played by Adir Lev Mann, who did research on the play in Paris.

Having family members who are from the Jewish communities of Morocco and Iraq has helped him understand the importance of the issues that the play raises

“Because it represents different types of Jews, this play encapsulates the modern Jewish experience,” Mann commented. “We have both an American Jew and French Jews who are the Ashkenazi and Sephardic. In “Prayer for the French Republic,” they are all brought together to deal with topics in a way that’s not been possible to really encapsulate so well elsewhere. The story does a really good job of hitting all these marks.”

How to survive in a country beset by antisemitism is a dilemma that’s faced the French Jewish community for generations. The play takes us back several times to 1945. At the start of the Nazi occupation, there were more than 340,000 Jews living in France. About 75,000 of them were deported to concentration camps. Often, they were rounded up with the help of French police and the Nazi’s French political collaborators. Only about 2,500 of those who were sent off returned to face many of their neighbors who had helped the Nazis.

“Prayer for the French Republic” at Actor’s Express runs from April 20 to May 14.

“Prayer for the French Republic,” which takes its title from a text in the French Jewish prayer book, is a complex story. There are 11 cast members in the play which is told over three hours. Director Ashley admits in its staging and its performance, the play is a challenge. What helps redeem it, for him, is the writing’s quality.

“The playwright is a very close friend of mine and often will share ideas in progress with me that he’s working on,” Ashley said. “And we have a long professional history together. And he sent me this play and I couldn’t believe what I was reading. It was so powerful, so well-written. It’s hard to deny what this play offers.”

The play won four 2022 Drama Desk Awards, including best new production, New York’s Outer Circle Award for Best off-Broadway play, and was first winner of the Trish Vradenburg Jewish Play Prize, awarded by Theater J at the Jewish Community Center in Washington.

Freddy Ashley sees the success of “Prayer” as a promising development for recent theater, which has often been about stories and voices who have had difficulty being heard. That includes the contemporary Jewish experience that Joshua Harmon finds so appealing.

“I think finding plays that have the authentic voice of a lived experience of a cultural heritage, like Jewish life today,” Ashley observes, “is something that is really exciting in theater right now. It allows us to see stories not filtered through another lens, but from a place of authenticity.”

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