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Managing Editors Update: Dateline New York March 15, 2020
A Black and White Cookie Grand Opening Has Been Postponed Due to Corona Virus Safe Distancing Concerns. Status to Follow.
There is always personal risk in getting to know a stranger. Which may explain, in part, why we attempt to categorize people. Categories such as race, religion, political leanings, the outward signs of culture observed by dress styles to hairstyles to tattoos, serve to help us pigeonhole people into generalized forms and we judge them accordingly. This categorization helps us, we believe, to know who we can trust with sensitive information about ourselves. It is also a tool that instructs how to best interact with “those types” whenever we must have an encounter with “those people.”
Trust involves vulnerability. It is only through trust, and the risk of being vulnerable, that we can get to a place where relationships are forged. Categorization tools can be a serious impediment to developing this trust between strangers.
A Black and White Cookie is a play written by Gary Morgenstein (Opens March 26th and runs through April 12th) at Theater for the New City, 155 First Avenue) has us observe such an encounter between strangers. The strangers will be challenged to leave the comfort of their previous convictions about “those people” and find reason to learn to trust one another.
The two protagonists are Harold Wilson, an ageing black man who is a proprietor of a newsstand, and Albie Sands, an ageing ethnic-but-not-practicing Jew, still devout to the Communist cause, who lives somewhere between 5th and 9th. Indeed they are complete strangers, even though they have “encountered” each other almost every single day for eight years. The play invites us to see what happens when, suddenly and for the first time, they break a barrier. They talk. And, consequently, they begin to really get to know each other.
Harold has never taken a day off in all the time Albie has been visiting his newsstand. We know this because Albie remarks about that very fact. He has obviously been paying attention to Harold and his operation, although he has never actively attempted a personal introduction in all the years he has been frequenting Harold’s newsstand.
As the play, directed by Joan Kane begins, the two gentlemen are grumbling their pronouncements at each other. Albie is upset to see a placard that announces the newsstand is closing. Harold grumbles back, telling Albie to mind his own business, and directs him to go to another newsstand a few streets away.
The initial exchange presents a dismissive Harold – he is simply seeking to just manage Albie and move on with his day. Albie is primarily concerned with having his daily ham and Swiss, yet his remarks reveal that he thinks the daily purchase of a sandwich somehow approximates a real relationship with Harold. He wonders that Harold did not miss him on the few occasions he did not show up:
Albie: Remember five months ago when I was in bed for a week with acid reflux?
Albie: Where’d you think I went?
Harold: In my business, people come and go.
People come and go. Here we have one man who has forgotten to appreciate the people he sees regularly, based on the premise that he might not see them tomorrow. The other man wants relationship, but he has forgotten that it takes real engagement to accomplish that purpose.
Pair the failure at sociability between these two with their backstory from fifty years ago. Over the course of the play Albie and Harold share the events that shaped the social, political and cultural attitudes they possess. Until the occasion of the newsstand closing, they have remained stuck in those attitudes. The cultural revolution of the 60’s. The Vietnam War. The conflict between Israel and Palestine. All these events led Albie and Harold to choose certain identities for themselves and determined to remain socially exclusive from each other all this time.
Getting Into Each Others’ Business:
Then comes their present circumstance. Suddenly, Harold’s newsstand is about to shut down. While yesterday Albie’s relationship with Harold was simply to obtain his daily ham and Swiss, Albie is now activated to stand up for the rights of his sandwich supplier, and Harold is forced to spend some time and attention acknowledging a patron who yesterday he regarded as a person whose patronage was paltry, and of an ethnic class that had little to do with him anyway.
The crisis of a business going out of business becomes the catalyst that breaks two old men out of their routine of minding their own business. The crisis forces them to engage with each other, get to know each other, and as a consequence, find out how they can help each other.
How to Get to a Greater Good:
The warm mood and sweet flavor of this play is very much in the vein of a 1980’s Broadway hit called I’m Not Rappaport, which also pairs a black man and a Jewish man together. In I’m Not Rappaport, however, the protagonists are together navigating the sunset years of life, facing the fear of their lives becoming inconsequential and useless. It explores the attitudes of those around them, including family members trying to figure out how to take care of them in their old age.
The focus of A Black and White Cookie, in contrast, presents us with two men who are still convinced of their capability to be productive and valuable. Albie still regards himself an active voice against the “ruling capitalist class.” Harold is only giving up his newsstand because the rent is being raised and he can’t afford it. He resents being priced out of his occupation. He values his knowledge of baseball and his beloved Mets and wants to remain in New York, even though his house has suffered some neglect due to the demands of his business and the fact that he is getting older. Communist Albie is destined to organize a protest over the all of this, of course, but despite it being a comical effort, Harold begins to envision choices he dared not before, having been himself a victim of fatalist thinking and a passive resignation to his lot in life. Friends and family serve to interject their own racial, cultural, and political fears and attitudes. Every character in the play is diverse, and everyone must struggle to get past their diverseness to find a unified purpose. Harold’s niece Carol is a lesbian who had a bad experience with Jews in the past, and she distrusts Albie.
The son of Albie’s former comrade-in-arms, Mitchell, might be best described as a devoted cynic, and he uses his “activism” more to annoy his stepmother than because he is any kind of real, sincere activist. The landlord is, of course, regarded as a cruel capitalist. Can people representing different cultures, classes, and points of view be trusted?
Who is out to take advantage of whom? Can they all come together for a greater good? Can they even all agree on what is the greater good?
And ultimately, we wonder: is it possible that there will ever come a day when we can actually judge people simply by the content of their character? In the 60’s, African Americans and Jews marched together in solidarity with one another.
Where did that go, and can we return to it?
It Takes All Kinds:
In his play Morgenstein allows the audience to join these two men on a delightful and edifying journey to get beyond their pre-conceived notions of each other, and all those around them, and find a broad and beautiful plain of commonality. The occasion forces these two main characters to leave the daily, impersonal, perpetual state of stranger-hood and try to have an actual relationship, built on trust, and faith in a future. It encourages us to do the same.
It is a journey that challenges the audience to deliberate whether, in all our “wokeness,” we are actually emboldening bigotry. New notions of “wokeness,” in fact, may be the reason we further pigeonhole “those people” deeper into the stereotype we have assigned for them. Certainly, it seems to be getting more polarizing and divisive out there. Anti-Semitism is at an all-time high right now, with violence surging in America and in Europe.
Hate crimes against various colors, ethnicities, and religions continue to burden our country and further enforces all sorts of bigotry, too. No one knows anymore whether to use the pronoun he, she, they, zi… all for fear of offending. It is also creating more polarity, but from the opposite direction. Those of us who are well-intentioned are at risk of dividing just by using the wrong form of address. It also means more stereotypes are being formed, to the point we cannot keep up with all of them, making our society even more toxic. This is not progress, yet this is where we are right now.
Harold and Albie had played into the “keep to your kind” mindset, and it kept them from friendship. As long as we, societally speaking, keep to our kind and refuse to hear out those with opposing viewpoints and convictions, and respect them even if we disagree with them, if we in any way support a society that would accept silencing those whose opinion may be different from our own, we cheat ourselves out of learning, growing, and finding out that each one of us is much more than the sum of our political/ethnic/cultural/sexual/religious parts.
No matter what is our social or cultural or political stripe, the play persuades us to inspect the convictions we keep. Where did our convictions come from? What was the reasoning? Is it still relevant? In the words of Pham (Harold’s newsstand landlord), “History should teach, not offend.”
Morgenstein posits that we should all be mindful to learn the right lessons of history and make less of a production about being offended by trespasses of the past. A Black and White Cookie makes this point, and in such a way as to sweetly suggest that we were all meant to be friends.
Gary Morgenstein also wrote the off-Broadway sci-fi rock musical The Anthem, inspired by the Ayn Rand novella, among other stage works such as You Can’t Grow Tomatoes in the Bronx, about a blue-collar Jewish family in the 1960s, and the political romantic dramedy Right on Target. He is currently developing a musical based on the life of King David. Morgenstein is the author of six novels including the critically acclaimed dystopian A Mound Over Hell, set in 2098 following America’s defeat by Islam in World War Three as baseball begins its final season ever, which has been hailed as “1984 Meets Shoeless Joe.” A Fastball for Freedom, the second book in The Dark Depths series, will be published by BHC Press in 2021. His other novels include Take Me Out to the Ballgame, The Man Who Wanted to Play Center Field for the New York Yankees, Loving Rabbi Thalia Kleinman and Jesse’s Girl.
Thank you for reading my review of A Black and White Cookie by Gary Morgenstein. I hope you are able to go see the play during its run March 26th – April 12th, 2020. If we are going to have a country defined by the strength of our community, we will need to achieve some solidarity amongst our different races, colors, and creeds, and recognize that every single one of us was born to be loved. This play touches on that truth, and offers a chance to engage on the subject.
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In pursuit of truth, and truly yours,