Community Collaboration Key to Bringing Elijah’s Angel World Premiere to JCC for 100th

Through the efforts of a local author, local artists, and educators, the Jewish Community Center’s 100th year will culminate in presenting the first-ever JCC-commissioned play, created by and for the community. Through the support and collaborative efforts of the Jewish community, the 1992 children’s book, Elijah’s Angel, written by Columbus’ own Michael J. Rosen, will come to life in the Roth/Resler Theater at 7:30 pm December 7.

Rosen has taken his award-winning picture-book, loosely based on his friendship with treasured local folk artist and minister, Elijah Pierce (1892-1984), and adapted it for the stage. Elijah’s Angel tells the story of how, on the first night of Hanukkah that was also Christmas Eve, two very different people reconciled art, faith, and a need to create thanks to one very meaningful angel.

“The great thing about the Jewish Center’s involvement in this is that in 100 years this is the first time a play has been commissioned. I’m honored to be the native son who brings this play to the Center,” said Rosen. Today, as the holidays of Hanukkah and Thanksgiving also coincide, the play brings Rosen full circle back to his roots at the JCC, as his new play galvanizes the community around the beautiful tale of cross-cultural connection.

The play begins when Rosen, as a young boy, visits 80-year-old Pierce during a class field trip to his barbershop, where he whittled wood in between giving haircuts. Now, many years after Rosen first met Pierce and fell in love with his art, that same spirit of community and friendship lives on in the JCC’s 100th year celebration.

Beginning December 7 and continuing through December 15, the JCC will present the world premiere that was many years and many hands in the making. The story of how the play came to be began decades ago when, like the play’s young protagonist, Rosen first became friends with Pierce after an introduction by well-known local arts educator Mimi Brodsky Chenfeld and her late husband, Howard.

Rosen grew up in Berwick surrounded by neighbors like the Chenfelds. The JCC was like a second home to him, and his play celebrating the JCC’s 100th year certainly embraces this larger sense of community that Rosen had in his youth.

It was through another community member that the idea of turning the book into a play first came to be. Teacher and Gallery Players committee member Cheryl Agranoff has been reading Elijah’s Angel to her classes at Olentangy Local Schools for years. Agranoff brought the idea for turning Elijah’s Angel into a play to the attention of the JCC. “It just seemed to me that it would be a perfect fit for our anniversary celebration,” said Agranoff.

“Of course, this play has to happen here. The friendships and the ties that bind people [at the JCC] are unbelievable. This play is perfect for the 100th anniversary because it goes back to a Columbus friendship between people of different backgrounds. That’s what happens at the JCC every day,” Agranoff explained.

For Agranoff, who has a 24-year connection to the JCC and Jewish community and is a former Teacher of the Year and Columbus Jewish Day School teacher, the fact that the community mobilized, taking her small suggestion and transforming it into action, was especially meaningful.

“It really speaks to how the people in our community support each other’s endeavors and want to see other people succeed. You don’t find that in a lot of places,” she added.

The Jewish community and the larger Columbus community truly came together to make the play. The coming together happens both onstage in the play and offstage, outside of the story.

Nine-year-old actress Georgia Fried, who was also in Gallery Players’ JCC 100 production of Fiddler on the Roof, plays Michael’s Sunday School classmate, Claire. She sees the kind of mutual support and respect Agranoff speaks of among her cast members, too— both Jewish and non-Jewish.

Holiday songs, both for Hanukkah and Christmas, are sung in the play, which makes cross-cultural understanding essential, she said. “I’m Jewish, so I don’t know the Christmas songs which we have to sing in the play. I think, ‘What does this mean, what are we singing?’ And others who are not Jewish, when we have to sing the Jewish songs, like Maoz Tzur, are also asking, ‘What is that saying?’ But it makes me feel good to be able to help my castmates understand better. I’ll ask them to help me with this certain line, and they’ll ask me for help on other lines. We’re all just helping each other,” explained Fried.

Bobby Belair, who stars as Michael and was also the lead in last year’s Gallery Players’ production of Hanukkah Lights in the Big Sky, agreed that coming together is important. “It doesn’t matter what race you are, what you believe in, or how old you are, you can still be friends. That’s the most important lesson in this play. With all the bullying that happens every day— that’s just something the world has come to— this play is important for people to see because it’s important to meet in the middle and still be friends. It’s something that is very touching. Every year I come to the JCC, I learn a little bit more about Hanukkah and Judaism,” said Belair.

The heartwarming, family-friendly play shows there are ways to agree to disagree without judgment or cruelty. The character of Michael’s father, played by Jon Osbeck, helps Belair’s conflicted character realize this. He offers Michael encouragement after he receives a gift he is not sure he can accept.

Osbeck, a local actor who brings 15 years of professional experience to the stage and was most recently in Catco’s Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, explained that, for him, this is one of the key moments in the play. “That scene carries a lot of weight because it’s where the parents help Michael see that some things can mean different things to different people. In that moment, his parents are saying, ‘It’s okay. This can still have meaning to you.’ It’s a revelation for them all,” Osbeck reflected.

Frank Jones, Jr., a local minister who plays Elijah Pierce, agreed. “We have to understand that when it comes to beliefs, there can be a divide. But angels are still angels; God is God. If you believe in God and if you believe in angels, that’s where we all meet at the center. That’s what’s important,” said Jones, Jr.

These kinds of differences are confronted and confounded in the very first scene, explained playwright Rosen. “Michael is asked what he can play. He says, ‘I don’t play anything,’ and one of his new classmates quips, ‘Those who do, play; those who don’t, cheer.’ Then another classmate adds that only girls are cheerleaders, so Michael should just come watch. Just as Michael agrees and grabs a little sense of inclusion, his classmate continues, ‘This Saturday, at 10.’ Michael, deflated, admits: ‘That’s when I go to synagogue.’ Behind his classmates’ reactions of ‘Oh…,’ the meaning is there: ‘Ohhhh. You’re the Other.’”

Jack Rossio, who plays kickball-loving Tyler, one of Michael’s non-Jewish classmates, admits that, as someone who recently celebrated his Bar Mitzvah, he has trouble relating to his character. But, he said, “Tyler may seem like a bully, but throughout the story, he evolves and gets nicer. He kind of seems intimidating at first, but then, once Michael gets to know him, he becomes nicer and more understanding of the Jewish religion.”

Rosen takes the concept of being an outsider in one’s community and turns it around. “Almost every child can appreciate what it’s like to be teased or bullied, and in that way, we’re not different. At our very core, we all experience difference—and that makes us alike. Much of what I write—this play included—is about recognizing, achieving, and honoring difference,” he said.

“I want people to recognize themselves up on the stage. I want them to be engaged.” Rosen continued, “If I’m telling a really good story, I want you to think of your story.”

Jon Osbeck certainly is reminded of his own story as both a father and a young boy interested in art in a school where he, too, once was in the minority. “I’m excited about doing a project that ties back to my Jewish heritage,” said Osbeck.

“A lot of the experiences that Michael has are similar to those I had as a kid. That feeling that Michael has of trying to figure out where he fits in is relatable for me,” Osbeck explained.

As it was for Michael, art was the great equalizer for Osbeck. “Instead of acting out, I pursued acting. It gave me an outlet and a way to participate in something where differences were cast aside because everyone was in it for the art.”

Jones, Jr., also recognizes a bit of himself on stage. “Elijah has a background I’m familiar with. There’s a scene in the play where Elijah tells Michael about how his father had been a slave. I can relate to Elijah on many levels, but certainly on that level, because my grandfather had also been a slave. When I was asked to be a part of this play, I couldn’t turn it away. I want to do justice to Elijah’s legacy.”

Following the Sunday matinee on December 8, from 3:30 to 5 p.m., a FREE afternoon of activities for children will promote friendship and respect in keeping with the play’s main themes. A variety of activity stations geared around the play’s centerpiece, Elijah’s carved angel, will allow kids to get hands-on with the idea of sharing common ground through art.

Limited copies of Elijah’s Angel as well as other works by Michael J. Rosen will be available for purchase, and Rosen will be on-hand to sign them. Following these activities, the entire community is invited to attend a once-in-a-lifetime JCC 100 closing event during which the JCC 100 Time Capsule will be placed in the building’s cornerstone.

In addition, amidst a special post-play dessert reception on opening night, a free art exhibit will open in the JCC lobby on December 7, showcasing some of Elijah Pierce’s most famous works. The exhibit will feature pieces from local owners and will partner with the Columbus Museum of Art, which is lending several important pieces from Pierce’s life, including a replica of his barber chair. Wall art, a video on the history of Elijah Pierce, and 8-foot banners from Continental Office Systems will all be a part of this special JCC 100 art exhibit on display through the end of the year.

Showtimes for the play are 7:30 pm on Saturday, December 7; 2:30 pm on Sunday, December 8; 7:30 pm on Thursday, December 12; 7:30 pm on Saturday, December 14; and 2:30 pm on Sunday, December 15. Ticket prices are $15 for JCC members, $20 for nonmembers; $13 for senior members, $18 for senior nonmembers; $10 for Children under 18 or students with a valid ID, and $10 per ticket for groups of 10 or more.

For tickets and information, contact the box office at 614-231-2731 or purchase online at www.jccgalleryplayers.org