Playwright-director Michel Hausmann has plenty of experience with oppression, in his own and his family’s life. Both his Jewish grandmothers endured the Holocaust. Two shows Hausmann produced in his native Venezuela suffered from pressure by the government of then-president Hugo Chavez, one of them violently attacked.
Hausmann, 34, has channeled that history into The Golem of Havana, a chamber musical about a Jewish family in 1958 Havana struggling with issues of guilt, trust, loyalty, betrayal and survival during the Cuban Revolution. The Golem of the title is a figure from Jewish folklore, made from clay and brought to life by magic; in the most famous version of the legend, he was created by an 18th century Polish rabbi to save the Jews from pogroms, then destroyed when the monster turned against his creator.
“The metaphor I’m using in the play is that you need this savior to come and save you, but then what happens?” Hausmann says. “Revolutions are like Golems — after he defeats your enemies, you become his enemy.”
The show, which opens Thursday for a 3 1/2-week run at the Colony Theater, played to strong audiences during its 2013 debut at La Mama E.T.C. in New York, where it was developed at the renowned New York Theatre Workshop (which nurtured Rent and theater artists including Tony Kushner and Martha Clarke). It subsequently received good reviews and two award nominations in a 2014 run at the well-regarded Barrington Stage Company in Massachusetts.
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Hausmann’s play was inspired by his grandmothers, particularly his mother’s mother. Now 98, she grew up in a Hungarian village where inhabitants reported the few Jews to the Nazis. Her entire family died in the war; most in concentration camps, while three brothers (out of 12 siblings) died soon afterward. Her bitterest loss was her sister, who survived Auschwitz with her, only to die in a notorious 1945 death march as the Nazis fled the invading Soviet army.
“My grandmother had a lot of rage,” Hausmann says. “Her town was so tiny, it’s the type of town where the war didn’t happen. But the neighbors called and said there were Jews in the village; otherwise they could have survived.”
Hausmann’s Polish paternal grandmother, on the other hand, was saved by a Gentile family who pretended that she was their own daughter.
“One saw the best of humanity and one saw the worst,” says Hausmann. “One never trusted anyone again. The other saw generosity everywhere she looked.”
In the Golem of Havana, Yutka, the angry wife of Hungarian Jewish tailor Pinchas, is burdened with guilt over having trusted a man who betrayed her and her sister to the Nazis. The couple’s idealistic daughter Rebecca fantasizes about a transplanted Golem who will save the Cuban people. Rebecca is drawn to the revolutionary fighter Teo, the son of the family’s maid Maria, while the charismatic Arturo lures Pinchas with promises of success backed by the government of dictator Fulgencio Batista. The family struggles over whom to trust, and to balance their humanity with fear and survival.
“What we explored a lot is who’s good and who’s bad,” says Hausmann. “That line of good and evil blurs sometimes.”
The image of the Golem hangs over the play, largely in Rebecca’s dreams — which echo Hausmann’s childhood fantasies of being a gun-toting hero blazing into Auschwitz to save his grandmother.
Most of Hausmann’s peers in the Jewish community in Caracas where he was raised were also the grandchildren of escapees from the turmoil in Europe. In the early 2000s, he launched what became a successful theater company in Caracas, producing translations of Broadway musicals that drew huge audiences.
But in the late 2000s, Venezuela’s Jews underwent their own version of their families’ experience as Chavez attacked Israel, expelling its ambassador and calling for its president to be prosecuted for mass murder. That move propelled a wave of anti-Semitism that resulted in attacks on synagogues and armed raids of Jewish schools, leading many Venezuelan Jews to flee the country.
In 2009, as Hausmann’s troupe prepared to stage Fiddler on the Roof (about Russian Jews fleeing pogroms), the government-funded orchestra backed out, saying they couldn’t play a Jewish show, turning Hausmann into a vocal opponent of the government. But after a 2010 performance of Jesus Christ Superstar was assaulted with tear gas, following a conflict over backing by media deemed hostile to the government, Hausmann went into exile in New York.
That chapter of his life also inspired Golem of Havana.
“We lived a slow-motion revolution in Venezuela,” Hausmann says. “I understood the Cuban revolution in a way I hadn’t before. I know what it is to lose everything. I’ve seen people in Venezuela whose stores and factories were taken away, whose schools had to close. I’ve seen what a diaspora means.”
The show’s composer is Salomon Lerner, a childhood friend and longtime collaborator of Hausmann’s who also ended up in New York. The two men took a writing workshop at New York University with Len Schiff, who became Golem of Havana’s lyricist.
Lerner says he was challenged to blend Cuban and Jewish klezmer music with the dramatic needs of music theater. A song where Arturo tries to convince Pinchas to join him in a money-making scheme with the army is Cuban, while Yutka’s enraged reaction is a dark klezmer. A song for the Santeria deity Yemaya echoes a traditional Afro-Cuban hymn as well as the theme of pleading with a mythic figure for salvation — a familiar theme to Schiff, who has worked on multiple adaptations of the Golem story.
The show mixes cultures and diasporas in other ways. The five Miami musicians in the band are émigrés from Cuba and Venezuela, playing clarinet and saxophone, tamborine and congas. Half the actors are from New York, including original cast members Liba Vaynberg and Ronald Peet, who play Rebecca and Teo, while Miami actors Chaz Mena, who plays Arturo, and Raúl Durán, as a bullying military figure, have worked on English- and Spanish-language projects.
Hausmann moved to Miami a year ago to start Miami New Drama, and the cross-cultural themes of their first show are key to his and Kaufman’s goals for the group. He and the show’s writers, as well as their friends and families and the group’s board, are producing the play with their own money, a substantial risk. But Hausmann is driven by his belief in building the cultural and political understanding that failed his grandmothers, his own generation in Venezuela, and so many others in Miami.
“This is about exile and alienation, and I think most communities in Miami will understand that,” Hausmann says. “This is such a diverse community, and it’s unique in America. As minorities turn into majorities, Miami has some of what the future will hold. So how can theater turn it into that place where communities will form? How can we tell stories that unite us?”
If You Go
What: “The Golem of Havana”
When: Previews 8 p.m. Thursday to Friday; show opens 8 p.m. Saturday and continues 8 p.m. Wednesday-Friday, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday, and 3 p.m. Sunday through Feb. 7.
Where: Colony Theatre, 1040 Lincoln Rd., Miami Beach
Info: $35 to $65 at miaminewdrama.org