First Stage takes a serious look at racial conflict

"To the Promised Land" interweaves the lives of a young Golda Meir and an African-American girl amid the civil rights movement.

By - Jan 25th, 2013 09:07 am

To the Promised Land opens tonight from First Stage

In 2011, Milwaukee was named the most segregated city in America. It’s difficult for people to acknowledge and even more difficult to undo a complicated history that led to Milwaukee’s current segregation issues.

But it is possible to shed some light on that history, and invite a conversation about racial conflict. Fresh off MLK Day’s inspiring performance arts events earlier this week, First Stage presents the world premiere of Jonathan Gillard Daly’s To the Promised Land, a play that focuses in on the civil rights movement in Milwaukee.

The play is part of the Wisconsin Cycle, a six-year initiative to present work significant to Wisconsin heritage.

“It was a wonderful coincidence that I got involved with the program,” said Daly. “I had thought of the concept about six years ago and only began working in earnest recently. I mentioned the project to Jeff Frank [First Stage artistic director] and he brought up the Wisconsin Cycle and asked to read it. I guess he liked it. The timing was just perfect.”

The play takes place over two time periods. We see a young Golda Meir around 1910, raising money for school books (considered her first public initiative). Jump forward to 1969 and we’re introduced to Ruth, living in the same apartment with her single mom. Ruth’s older brother recently died in fair housing uprisings, and her father’s not around for reasons she doesn’t understand. When she starts having trouble in school, a concerned teacher sees her potential and assigns her an extra credit project to research Golda Meir. The girls’ stories overlap through eras.

Daly’s own daughter was assigned a Golda Meir research project, which ignited his interest in writing her story.

The photo that inspired Daly to write To the Promised Land

“I was so interested in her affinity for the African American struggle,” said Daly. “Golda Meir School [at the time she attended, Fourth Street Grade School] used to have an entirely Jewish student body. Now, the school has an entirely African-American student body. There’s an iconic photo of Golda on a visit to the school…she’s embracing a young African-American girl. That was my inspiration. I wanted to bring those worlds together. The struggles of these races are so similar—the scorn and displacement and years of mistreatment.”

The play’s director, Sheri Williams Pannell, is a product of the same Milwaukee neighborhood. She was a young child during the civil rights movement and fair housing uprisings.

“She brings so much to the play,” said Daly. “ and she’s very nurturing to the child actors. We work well together, with a careful collaboration. I wanted to walk into rehearsals and just hand the play over [Jon acts in the play as well], but I found myself editing with Sheri much more than I anticipated. Most directors don’t want the playwright breathing down their neck, but we’re really respectful of each other’s ideas. We’ve made a lot of changes; it’s been a terrific process.”

Young Ruth and Golda, played by Esther O’Brien and Hannah Engel

Daly believes that the heavy themes within To the Promised Land will challenge the audience in the best way, specifically the younger audience.

“I would rather risk overreaching,” said Daly. “Kids are smarter than credit is given. It’s important to challenge them; don’t talk down to them. We had a recent performance with a student audience and the response was so encouraging. They were really with it the whole time. I’m demanding a lot from them, and I expect a lot in return. There’s a huge difference between settling for easy entertainment and allowing kids to really think about the issues.”

Daly feels strongly about shedding light on this historical period without being overtly political. He feels that First Stage is courageous for staging the play, and providing a resource for parents to speak openly with their kids about race.

“I just want to honestly show how things were,” said Daly. “This was a major struggle, going back a long way. African Americans were dismissed from housing with impunity and we should revisit that history and stimulate a conversation. The audience needs to decide how far we’ve come. In my opinion, we have a long way to go, especially in Milwaukee.”

To the Promised Land opens at First Stage tonight, Friday Jan. 25, at 7:30 p.m. and runs through Feb. 10. Tickets are $12, $19 or $32 online or call (414) 273-7206.

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