At the start of the last century, progressive Jews and African Americans made common cause and struggled together against inequality, both in the labor movement and then later in the fight for civil rights. But the relationship has always been a stormy one, and not one that gets much attention in our larger discourse about American history, which is too often oversimplified into black and white. Fulbright Scholar and two-time Jerome Fellowship winner Abi Basch plumbs this dynamic with Voices Underwater, which gets a script-in-hand workshop reading at the Ashby Stage Monday night, presented by Traveling Jewish Theatre. It’s perfect timing, since Voices is a ghost story, with Civil War revenants lurking in the dusty attic of an Alabama house inherited by modern-day Jewish businesswoman Emma and her fastidious African-American boyfriend Franklin. What was meant as a romantic weekend getaway turns into something very different as a storm hits, and the rising water brings out the house’s ghosts — the daughter of a KKK wizard, a young soldier — who are younger versions of Emma and Franklin living in different times. Together the characters explore a long-buried family mystery, and the unspoken history of blacks and Jews in the post-Civil War South. Originally discovered at last year’s Bay Area Playwrights Festival, Voices juxtaposes poetic language and lovers’ quarrels, letters home, and magical realism, in an intense and dreamlike narrative.
The play will be read by CalShakes associate artist L. Peter Callender, which should be a real treat — we don’t often get to hear heavyweight Callender go through his magical stockroom of voices. CalShakes audiences will also recognize ensemble member Ellen Scarpaci, who played another woman faced by ghosts last year in Crowded Fire’s Slaughter City. They’re joined by Molly Shaiken (Flaming Iguanas with Theatre Rhino) and Rebecca White, and directed by the Playwright Foundation’s Amy Mueller. The performance will be followed by a chance to talk with the director and playwright.
Voices Underwater is read at 8 p.m. Monday. Tickets are $12-$15 from ATJT.com or 415-255-0786. — Lisa Drostova
Step Right Up
Soul on Sawdust
The circus dates at least as far back as the Roman Empire, when gladiators battled, lions devoured Christians, and chariots raced at blazing speeds, centuries before NASCAR. The modern circus began in 18th-century England, although the big top is a uniquely American invention, harking back to 1825. Today, there are both postmodern and traditional circuses — and the UniverSoul Circus, which features acrobats, contortionists, daredevils, wire-walkers, pole balancers, and trapeze artists from all over the world, performed to a musical mix of hip-hop, salsa, R&B, gospel, and jazz. The show opens Friday at 5601 Oakport St. in the East O, and will wow you until November 6. Tickets and info: UniverSoulCircus.com or 800-316-7439. — Eric K. Arnold
Increase the Peace
In 2003, two directors — one Jewish, one Arab — collaborated with playwright Robin Soans on a work about the Middle East conflict, based on verbatim conversations among the three. Two years later, The Arab-Israeli Cookbook makes its Bay Area premiere. The play features eight actors on a tiny stage portraying forty roles and discussing how the conflict affects their everyday lives. It’s the type of play often associated with TheatreFIRST — what the Oakland-based company calls a “pocket epic” — and after opening Thursday night at the BRJCC (1414 Walnut St., Berkeley, through Nov. 6), it moves to the Old Oakland Theatre (461 9th St.) November 10 through 20. 510-436-5085 or TheatreFirst.com — Eric K. Arnold
The Shadows Know
Even in outline, the Hindu epic Mahabharata is a complicated piece of work, with a multitude of characters and a series of interlocking narratives. So, best to just sit back, watch the hypnotic flicker of light and shadow, and listen to the percussive, equally trance-inducing sounds of Gamelan Sari Raras, at Saturday’s wayang kulit performance of the ancient mythical adventure at UC Berkeley’s Hertz Hall (7:30 p.m.). The gamelan, directed by shadow theater master Midiyanto and Ben Brinner, features guest drummer Darsono, and plays in the Javanese style. Tickets ($7-$10) from 510-642-9988 or at the door. — Kelly Vance