“To the Promised Land”
Jonathan Gillard Daly's new play puts Golda Meir and a determined black girl in the same Milwaukee house decades apart.
First Stage’s To the Promised Land is set in a fictional house on Walnut Street, in an area that was razed for construction of I-43. Playwright and actor Jonathan Gillard Daly took a bit of dramatic license to suggest that Ruth, an African American girl, and the young Golda Meir (then Goldie Mabovich) both lived there– Ruth in 1969 and Goldie some 60 years earlier.
Daly draws parallels between the discrimination that both girls’ families faced and between the triumphs of the education both experienced at Fourth Street School — now Golda Meir School. The play shows how their lives– though very different– were also similar in so many ways. Their lives intersect beyond the common residence. After being assigned to write a paper on Meir, Ruth is chosen to introduce the then Prime Minister of Israel on her visit to the school in October of 1969.
If you lived in Milwaukee during the turbulent Sixties, the events of Ruth’s life will seem familiar. Her brother, Cliff, played by Di’Monte Henning, was a Commando during the open housing demonstrations and was killed by police. Her mother, Florence, played by Marvette Knight, is a “cleaning lady.” She recounts the problems the family had in its attempt to move outside the red-lined inner city.
If your family lived in Milwaukee during the years before and during World War I, the events of Meir’s life may seem familiar. Meir’s family came to America for the economic opportunity and to escape pogroms in Russia. Discrimination in Milwaukee limited where they could live.
In addition to writing the play, Daly plays two roles, Ruth’s teacher, Mr. Baker, and Goldie’s father, Moshe. Sheri Williams Pannell — who as a girl was inspired by Meir’s visit — is the director.
In keeping with First Stage tradition, two casts alternate in the juvenile roles. One cast, called “Hope,” features Esther O’Brien as Ruth, Hannah Engel as Goldie, Lexie Peterson as Sheyna, Emily Foran as Tzipka, and Kate Futoransky as Regina. The “Promise” cast comprises Lonnae Hickman, Katherine Pollnow, Christine Pollnow, Nora Laughlin, and Madison Penzkover, respectively. I saw the Hope cast and found the young performers to be thoroughly professional and convincing.
The play leaves you more aware of Milwaukee history and of the commonality of experiences of the city’s disparate ethnic groups. Though it has been taped and will air on Milwaukee Public Television this spring, the live performance is very affecting and well worth seeing.
The play, at the Todd Wehr Theater through Feb. 10, is part of the First Stage Theater’s Wisconsin Cycle of plays based on Wisconsin history. For tickets and further information, visit the First Stage website.