Awake and Sing!
director Damond Morris
Awake and Sing! was written for the Group theatre in 1935 and takes place during the winter of 1933 and 1934. Considered by many ‘the worst hard times’ of the Great Depression, the years saw 25 percent unemployment, violent labor clashes and strikes, and food riots across the U.S.. Without the safety net of unemployment insurance, families like the Bergers had to fend for themselves. Families were stacked like cord-wood in tiny rundown apartments or thrown into the streets of New York to face the cold winter in Hoovervilles erected in Central Park. Lines for soup kitchens stretched around city blocks and for many starving in the streets and trying to find a job, all hope seemed lost. The stock exchange was stagnated following the 1929 collapse, home foreclosures were on the rise, and a do-nothing Congress was afraid to act. In this wake, a presidential candidate running on the platform of hope, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was elected.
As a scholar of the Great Depression, I am troubled by archival information that echoes economic and social challenges facing American families today. The Bergers are a lower middle class family struggling to pay rent in a rundown apartment that turns off the heat at 10pm in the middle of winter. They live on the financial edge, with Myron and Ralph lacking the possibility of ‘advancement’ and taking cuts at the clothing factory to keep their jobs. This is not unlike families today that are financially strapped, holding down two or three part-time jobs to make ends meet. Bessie’s worst fear of the family thrown to the street is a fear families in Eugene—and around the nation—experience every day. Awake and Sing! resonates.
Moving Awake and Sing! into production has been a road of discovery for everyone involved. Clifford Odets original script, I Got the Blues, incorporated far more Jewish custom than the Broadway script on which our production is based. Odets re-worked the script to appeal to a Broadway audience, and in doing so defined the tension between first and second generation Americans. The intergenerational conflicts between Jacob/ Bessie, and Bessie/ Ralph gave a historic context of Americans attempting to enter and hold on to ‘the middle class’. This conflict defines, identifies and separates each successive generation, and it is the acknowledgement of intergenerational difference that contributes to our country’s character.
I would like to thank the faculty of the Theatre Arts Department for the opportunity to bring this story to you. I hope in these trying times that the Bergers experience can place your struggle in perspective. May security bless your family. Shalom.