St. Louis Post-Dispatch Interview With Paula Vogel, June 24, 2019
‘Indecent,’ a timely tale of long ago, strikes a chord with audiences
“God of Vengeance,” a Yiddish play by Sholem Asch that had successfully toured Europe, caused a sensation on Broadway in 1923 — because it included a scene in which two women kiss. The cast was arrested on grounds of obscenity.
That chapter in history is the inspiration for playwright Paula Vogel’s “Indecent,” presented by Max & Louie Productions. The play, which was produced on Broadway in 2017 and nominated for three Tony Awards including best play, won for its direction (by Rebecca Taichman) and lighting design (by Christopher Akerlind).
Recently, Vogel — who is perhaps best known for the Pulitzer Prize-winning drama “How I Learned to Drive” — spoke with Go! Magazine about “Indecent” and her career. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q • “Indecent” was your first play to be produced on Broadway. And it’s having a significant post-Broadway life, with productions not only in St. Louis but also in numerous cities including Boston, Los Angeles and Philadelphia.
A • It’s having a very good life. There are over 20 productions this season. I don’t know all of the productions, but I know it’s doing well.
Q • Why do you think the play, which includes musical interludes, has struck such a chord with audiences?
A • I think one of the drives for audiences is to remember who we were as a country — so that we can re-identify ourselves, as who we are in this moment. Very specifically, of course, this deals with the Yiddish legacy. But regardless of that, this play looks at the gift we’ve received from our immigrant ancestors.
I’ve been getting a lot of response from people who are experiencing a period of not being welcome in America, and this play deals with a time when we were trying to close our borders. But it’s also a love song to our ancestors and to theater — and how theater makes us a community.
Q • How did you become aware of “God of Vengeance” and the controversy surrounding it?
A • I read the play when I was 22 years old. One of the things that moved me so much about Sholem Asch’s play is that he supported and stood behind — at a time of great anti-Semitism, at a time of great social tension — the love between two women. A lot of married women, and women with children, over the decades performed the roles of these two women. And that moves me.
Q • To what extent is “Indecent” historically accurate?
A • There’s no documentation on the women actors, but Sholem Asch is highly documented. And I did a lot of research about Yiddish theater. One of the things that have happened to us is that we are now living in a great age of documentaries, and we expect a kind of historical fact rather than an emotional truth. But the great documentaries actually make emotional truths as well.
Q • What was it like to have one of your plays produced on Broadway after a long career in which that hadn’t happened?
A • It was fun. It’s not that I was writing work that I didn’t think would appeal to larger audiences. But I’ve always been aware, as a gay woman, of not being thought of as a Broadway playwright.