Lisa Traiger has been writing about theater and dance since 1985. Currently she contributes a weekly dance column to The Washington Post Weekend section. Her pieces on the cultural and performing arts appear regularly in the Washington Jewish Week and DanceViewTimes.com. She has also written for Moment magazine, Stagebill, Sondheim Review, Asian Week, the Boston Jewish Advocate, the Atlanta Jewish Times, Intermission and the Washington Review. A recipient of two Simon Rockower Awards for Excellence in Arts Criticism from the American Jewish Press Association, she recently earned an M.F.A. in choreography from the University of Maryland, College Park. In 2003, Ms. Traiger was a New York Times Fellow in the Institute for Dance Criticism at the American Dance Festival, Durham, N.C. e-mail : email@example.com
I'm a Zionist," Valerie Harper proclaims proudly. "I'm not Jewish, but I guess I've always been a Zionist without a word for it."
So it comes as little surprise how ardently this one-time Catholic schoolgirl, born in Suffern, N.Y., has taken to playing one of Jewish history's ur-Zionists, Golda Meir. Starring in William Gibson's Golda's Balcony, which with Tovah Feldshuh at the helm set the record as the longest-running, one-woman show on Broadway, Harper takes on the role of the hard-nosed but staunchly loyal Israeli prime minister with great joy.
Golda's Balcony runs through Sunday at the District's Warner Theatre, and some proceeds from this national tour are earmarked to support the Israel Children's Centers.
Meir, elected prime minister in 1969 when she was 70, moved to then-Palestine in 1921, where with her husband, Morris Myerson, she worked to build the longed-for Jewish state. Harper has fond memories of being aware of Meir during her years as foreign minister in the 1960s.
Meir, says the television and Broadway star, "is literally the mother of a nation. I was a fan of hers way back when I was a young actress in New York." This independent and politically savvy woman became a role model, Harper says.
"Having read Betty Friedan (who we just lost, God love her, another powerful fabulous Jewish woman ) I was deeply into feminism and Golda, with her unmistakable face, was such an accomplished woman, so powerful," Harper says.
In 85 minutes, playwright William Gibson has Meir face down one of her most difficult political and personal crises. The play, based on fact, hinges on the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Meir reflects on her life, recalling her successes in helping found the Jewish state, and her failures, professional and personal. She fields phone calls, brokers negotiations and wrestles with the ultimate existential question put to her beloved nation: Should she condone the use of nuclear weapons against the advancing armies of Egypt and Syria?
"She has memories of Cyprus in '48, when she was raising money for the arms for the War of Independence," Harper explains, equating history with Israel's current political situation. "Everyone thought the [Jews] would just be wiped out before they even started and the Jews would be thrown into the sea."
Harper is probably best remembered for her portrayal of television's Rhoda Morgenstern, the single Jewish New Yorker with plenty of spunk. Harper debuted as Rhoda on the Mary Tyler Moore Show in 1970 and the popular character was spun off into an independent sitcom, Rhoda, in 1974.
"That Rhoda was Jewish," Harper says, "was a wonderful thing for girls of any ethnicity, black women and Hispanic women" of that time, because she was a role model for working women.
Harper was trained as a dancer and, by the time she was a teen living in New Jersey, she was taking 10 classes a week and spent a season in the long-defunct Radio City Music Hall Ballet Company, her first paying gig. But once Harper got a taste of musical comedy, she set her sights on speaking roles, paying for acting classes with her chorus roles in musical comedies.
Harper keeps abreast of the current political situation in Israel and she relied on her close friends, Penny and Zvi Almog, for historical background in preparing herself to play Golda. Tel Aviv-born Zvi Almog, in fact, knew and worked with Meir in the early years of the state.
When Harper channels Meir, an intensity and determination comes into her voice. Pointing out that Golda's Balcony is a technically dynamic production, with slides and videos enhancing her characterizations, Harper says this play is suitable for young and old alike.
And while Golda Meir carried a heavy burden as the nation's prime minister, Harper points out that she was also a very funny lady ‹ not unlike Rhoda. She mimics Meir's flat Milwaukee accent: " 'I can understand why the Arabs want us dead, but do they really expect us to cooperate?'
"That Yiddish humor," Harper says, "it's wonderful."
Golda's Balcony with Valerie Harper at the Warner Theater
Tovah Feldshuh Golda's Balcony in NY
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Golda Meir (1898-1978)
Valerie Harper as Golda