Shaping Dough into Drama

David Wise C’98 nudges over a plump pillow of dough to fit another knish onto the cookie sheet. “A mother always knows how to make room for one more,” he explains. A tired smile crosses the actor’s face, which is softened by a wisp of red hair falling from the bun on his head.

With a Yiddish accent as thick as the potato-filled turnovers, Wise assumes the persona of Mrs. Grabel, a Jewish homemaker hard at work in her 1938 Brooklyn kitchen. His one-man play, Momma’s Knishes, was fashioned out of family stories Wise gathered on a cruise organized for his grandmother’s 80th birthday.

On this early spring night, Wise’s theater happens to be the on-campus apartment of Leslie Delauter, Penn’s director of college houses and academic services. He arrives there an hour before showtime with a suitcase, a garment bag filled with apron and house dress, and a cooler. Delauter’s partner, Nora Johnson, an associate professor of English at Swarthmore College, lets him in and shows him around the kitchen.

“In general does your oven tend to cook hot or cold?” Wise asks as he unpacks his props.

“I think it seems to be pretty much on target.”

While the play calls for some improvisation, Wise doesn’t want the outcome of his knishes to be a surprise. So he brings his own cookie sheets to ensure they brown properly on the bottom.

Before changing into his costume, Wise checks to make sure no modern distractions lurk nearby. “I’ve become an expert in disconnecting people’s phones,” he says. “Answering machines are the absolute worst. But at least I can play off that like it’s the radio.”

When they arrive, the audience members—friends of Wise who work at Penn—are informed that they too will play a role, as classmates visiting Mrs. Grabel’s 13-year-old daughter, Molly (played by Johnson). Everyone does their best to act their assigned age.

Under Mrs. Grabel’s bemused supervision, the knish-making begins: Each guest takes a turn rolling dough into a disc, topping it with a moist handful of seasoned onions, potatoes and matzo, and coiling up the dough until it breaks apart in the center. Mrs. Grabel then shows them how to cut the filled dough into segments, using the side of her hand as a knife. Before they go in the oven, the tops of the knishes are brushed with oil.

As they work, Mrs. Grabel serves up family stories. She talks of attending night school, waiting for her mother to move from Poland, and worrying about a son who mysteriously spends all of his time hanging around Greenwich Village.

Wise believes his cross-gendered approach adds an interesting—and subversive—layer to the drama. “I’m really so bored with plain old, stock drag characters,” he says. “I was interested to see whether drag could explore something totally different, something totally devoid of glamour and comedy. I had these images in my head of these women who had come off the boat, who were totally unglamorous.”

Delauter, who hosted the event, writes in an e-mail: “I thought David was very convincing as ‘Momma’ … honestly, I didn’t even notice his hairy arms after a while. I guess as someone who comes from immigrant stock, I’ve seen a lot of women who don’t really look feminine and sweet in that ideal American way … I thought he did a great job of preserving the character even when thrown off by the audience, and he had some wonderful stories to tell in his wonderful accent. 

“The timing—with our group, at any rate—seemed a little slow, with too much information being told to us while we were just sitting there eyeing the knishes and growing hungrier and more tired with each passing moment.”

When they did cool down enough to eat, she noted: “The knishes were out of this world.”

Wise says the play varies each time, depending on how interactive the audience is and other unforeseen circumstances. “One time someone’s roommate came home and didn’t know there was a show going on. So he walks into his own kitchen and sees a bunch of people and a guy in drag doing this show.” The actor managed to work him into the script, explaining him as one of Mrs. Grabel’s children.

As founder of The Experiential Theatre, Wise has performed in kitchens from Boston to New York, in coffeeshops, and even on the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum in a series of projects that explore “new possibilities in the relationship between audience and performer.”

Mrs. Grabel’s character was inspired in large part by a great-grandmother who immigrated from Poland. The knishes did, indeed, come from a family recipe, but as Wise points out, some important details were not passed down.

“My dad’s the one who always talks about my great grandmother’s knishes. And he doesn’t remember how she rolled them,” Wise says. “So he called up my grandmother, and she remembered it. But she called up her niece, who remembered it another way,” and so on. “That’s kind of representative of family stories. Everyone remembers it a little differently.”

Susan Frith

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