NJT gears up for world premiere for the first time –

New Jewish Theater fans are delighted that the company will host its first world premiere: Elizabeth Savage’s “The Bee Play.”

Savage is excited that “The Bee Play” will open on September 8, just before the holiday season. (Buy tickets online)

Elizabeth Savage

“It’s a perfect play for Elul,” explained the playwright, whose bubbly conversation artfully weaves together everything from off-Broadway shows to varieties of Jewish customs to household organization. “It’s all about forgiveness.”

“The Bee Play” was one of the most successful scripts submitted to the Jewish Play Project, an organization created to encourage new work in theaters like NJT across the country. Productions like this are exactly what the project was supposed to inspire.

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But the four-character drama could be just as appropriate in a different kind of ethnic theater, like the Black Rep. Or in scientific theatre, if there is such a thing.

Because it explores themes of sustainable living, Savage says, she understands why people assume “The Bee Play” is politics, “and I hate political theatre!”

That means, she clarifies, that she hates theater that sends virtue signals and smugly tells the audience how to think.

“The Bee Play” basically deals with current issues. But it’s essentially about people striving to live meaningful lives in a challenging world.

And bees. It’s also about bees.

“The idea for the piece came to me all of a sudden,” Savage said. “I lived with these characters for 10 years.”

She started with Carver Washington, a senior who lives in the Bronx with his disabled grandmother and little sister.

A smart kid with a scientific mind, Carver raises bees on the roof of their dilapidated apartment. He would like to go to university, would like to live somewhere – anywhere – different. Meanwhile, he sells his honey at a local farmers’ market, a bright spot in the food desert of the Bronx.

Savage said she had “knew” the Washington family for a while when I realized, oh! There is also a girl.” That turned out to be Devora (whose name indeed means “bee”).

Fresh out of Yale, Devora is very interested in “intentional communities” where like-minded people choose to live and support each other. She wants to set up some sort of kibbutz in the Bronx, where she’s moved.

“Her parents in Scarsdale can’t understand what she’s doing,” Savage said, perhaps superfluously. She also puzzles Carver.

“All he wants is to get out of the Bronx, and all she wants is (to) get into the Bronx,” Savage said.

But once they meet at the farmers’ market, one feels a kindred spirit in the other and a relationship develops.

That’s not what anyone could have predicted, including Savage. But she feels comfortable with that.

“Jewish journeys,” she notes, “are always long and winding.”

Take hers for example.

Savage is Jewish by choice. She grew up in the woods of Maine, riding her horse and doing some work as a child actor.

Remember the movie of Stephen King’s “Pet Sematary”? There she was: the little girl in the flashback. “I was in the scariest scene,” she says.

Neither her Ukrainian-American father, a writer and editor, nor her “total WASP” mother, a passionate gardener who taught at school, are Jewish.

They always encouraged her to follow her interests, which led her to New York University’s esteemed Tisch school to study theater.

“I went to Manhattan and never looked back,” Savage said. “The great love affair of my life is with New York City.”

Now 44 years old, Savage has acted for years and eventually started her own business as a professional organizer. This turns out not to be a bad performance for an actor or playwright.

“People tell me everything,” she said. “I would never betray their trust, but I learn a lot from them.”

New York is also where she met the other great love of her life, her husband, Nigel Savage.

“Nigel is Jewish-famous,” she says with a small blush.

He founded and headed Hazon, the largest Jewish environmental organization in North America, until last year.

Nigel Savage is originally from England and spends the power shmita year 5782 in Jerusalem. (However, he’s coming to St. Louis for the world premiere, as are his in-laws.) shmita year is “like Shabbat on steroids,” said the playwright, pointing out that “the Torah is, among other things, an agricultural document.”

During shmitafarmers in Israel let their fields rest. This is clever in agricultural terms, and not unlike the advice that Carver’s namesake, the great agricultural scientist George Washington Carver, gave to black tenant farmers after the Civil War.

Their small plots were not good ground. By the second half of the 19e century, most of the southern farmland was used up, depleted by King Cotton. Carver recommended planting crops that restore nitrogen to the soil, including legumes like (you guessed it) peanuts.

In other words, Carver advocated sustainable farming, just like Hazon. But Savage says her husband’s ideals didn’t determine the direction of “The Bee Play,” just as his religion didn’t determine her choice to be a Jew. She had already started menopause before they were a couple.

“There was no ring for me in the end,” she said. “I did that on my own strength.”

Savage has chosen to be a very active Jew, now involved in a number of congregations in New York.

She even visits synagogues across the country.

“Because of Hazon, Nigel is often invited to speak before Jewish organizations and in synagogues,” she said, “and often we are invited to make aliyah.

“That’s so thoughtful. I’ve always felt very welcome among Jews, never made to feel ‘different’.

“But I always say no. I’ve actually had two conversions: first conservative, then orthodox. But I haven’t been a bat mitzvah yet, and that’s what an aliyah would be for me.”

Savage looks forward to a special ceremony for herself when the time is right.

Nothing showed her the way to the hive. She traces the beginnings of her “obsession” – that’s her word for it – to articles in The New York Times. First, in 2007, she was deeply troubled by an article about Colony Collapse Disorder. In this syndrome, most worker bees disappear from their hive, leaving behind the queen, enough food, and a few nurse bees to care for her and the remaining immature bees.

At the time, many observers feared that CCD posed a long-term threat to the entire species. Today, the situation is much better, not only according to Savage, but also according to the US Environmental Protection Agency.

She started reading everything about bees she could get hold of, including another article three years later that fascinated her. Beekeeping, it reported, had been legalized in New York City.

“Who Knew It Wasn’t Legal?” she asks with a laugh. “Bees are hip now.”

Gradually, the whole thing—CCD, the beekeeping in New York City, her maturation as a Jewish woman belonging to a large community both ritually and culturally—resonated with Savage and mustered strength until she…made a play.

“When I was studying colony collapse, I suddenly realized: the things that kill bees kill us,” she said. “Carter is obsessed with colony collapse. Devora is obsessed with a different kind of collapse, a collapse of human society. And both are determined to solve the problems they see.”

“That’s a deeply Jewish ethic,” Savage said. “And I think this makes this a deeply Jewish piece.”

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