Navigate to News section

New Show From Slam Poet Vanessa Hidary Takes on Jewish Identity

‘Kaleidoscope’ premieres tonight at the 14th Street Y in New York’s East Village

Jas Chana
July 15, 2015
Vanessa Hidary. (T'rah Holliday Veal)

Vanessa Hidary. (T’rah Holliday Veal)

In 2012, Tablet contributor Bridget Kevane described Vanessa Hidary, aka the Hebrew Mamita, as “a slam poet known for her curves and for dressing like a Puerto Rican; big hoop earrings, tight jeans, hair pulled tightly back in a glistening high ponytail, great red lipstick, high heels.” Now, Hidary has developed a new liveshow called “Kaleidoscope,” which she also is directing, that explores the complex and myriad ways that Jewish identity can come into focus. It launches tonight at the 14th Street Y theater in New York’s East Village.

The show is comprised of twelve different monologues penned individually by the twelve performers, whose identities have been shaped by a life lived beyond the borders of the mainstream Judaism. Wrote Kevane:

Racial and ethnic tensions are at the heart of Hidary’s work, and watching her perform (there are many YouTube videos of her performances) is like watching a cultural stealth bomber whose goal is to target warehouses of cultural stereotypes. She is a vibrant performer who gathers speed and explodes at the climax of her poems. She is the woman who is too independent, too hard to handle, who can’t relax when she should let things slide. She is the wild woman, the wise woman, the woman that makes men scared. She exploits our settled beliefs and fears about the boundaries of race and gender to generate discomfort, anger and laughter.

When I mention to her that some think we are in the post-race or post-post identity era she scoffs: “Not true.” Although these prejudices are perhaps no longer articulated as openly in our politically correct environment, they persist. Sometimes, Hidary said, because she is Jewish, others assume that she thinks and shares certain complicit and inherited perceptions of African Americans or Latinos. In turn, sometimes, because she “looks” Puerto Rican, people openly share anti-Semitism with her. Because Hidary can “pass” in both communities, she is a secret witness to flourishing underground racial tensions and prejudices.

In an interview just hours before her show, Hidary told me that the twelve performers were selected because the voice of their Jewish identities are rarely heard, and their stories are too infrequently told: showcased in Kaleidoscope are Jews of Israeli, Moroccan, Ethiopian, Libyan and Puerto Rican Jewish descent. The show seeks to probe and challenge the assumptions that lie behind the Jewish identity. Through the series of deeply personal stories, the audience will be encouraged to think “about how people are represented,” Hidary said. Each performer has been asked to reflect on the different ways different people “fit into the Jewish community.”

Hidary isn’t sure whether the performances in Kaleidoscope will rub people up the wrong way, but she hopes that they will, at very least, provide for a thought-provoking experience. She says while there is a lot of variety in regards to the content of each monologue, and that the tone of the show will undoubtedly change from night to night, she hopes that the show will be uplifting. “There’s a lot of comedy,” she said.

The performers have been prepping their stories since April. After submitting a writing sample to Hidary and her executive producer, each performer spent time in writing workshops in order to perfect their pieces. They then began developing the physical performance aspect of their piece.

“Now they’re really ready for an audience,” Hidary said.

After Wednesday’s program, the show ill only run twice more—on Thursday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. However, Hidary hopes the show will eventually run outside of New York; she told me that each piece will be filmed and made accessible through the Kaleidoscope website.

Above all else the show isn’t just aimed at the Jewish community. Hidary says that it’s for anyone interested or struggling with the concept of race in modern society. Kaleidoscope, for Hidary, is the forum to talk about it.

Tickets for the three shows, on July 15th and 16th at 8pm, and on July 19 at 3pm, can be brought here.

Related: Passing

Jas Chana is a former intern at Tablet.