There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
In 1993, Washington playwright Patricia Lin was in a Baltimore theater sitting through callbacks for her play In the Grasp when a reporter for the local Jewish newspaper came bustling over. “You’re the Jewish playwright, right?” the woman asked. The paper, she explained, wanted to do a story about Lin, and about how being Jewish affected her writing.
Lin recalls being somewhat surprised. She is indeed Jewish, but In the Grasp—a modern morality tale involving a black college quarterback, an Asian-American coed, and an ambitious journalist—didn’t have anything to do with Lin’s ethnic heritage. Nor had her two previous plays, which focused on relationships between Asian-American and Anglo characters. “I was writing the world I knew,” says Lin, who is married to a Taiwanese immigrant and stepmother to two Asian-born sons, “a rainbow world.”
It is only recently that Lin’s ethnicity has manifested itself in her work—two of her past three plays address Jewish themes. The latest, One of the Few, examines Polish citizens who made the decision to conceal Jews from the Nazis. The other, Running Wild, is also set during the WWII era. It explores the plight of two American Jews—one fully assimilated, the other from a family of recent immigrants—who must decide whether or not to join the track delegation to the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.
“When I happened upon the story for Running Wild—and I really did happen upon it—I suddenly found a Jewish theme that explained something about my own background,” Lin says.
Though in retrospect she sees much affinity between Jewish and Asian cultural themes, Lin’s Jewish revival began by pure coincidence. In 1992, a cousin who is a pro tennis player received an honor at an awards banquet sponsored by a local Jewish group. At the dinner, Lin bumped into Ann Neugass Pirron, a friend she hadn’t seen since they were both about 12 years old. Pirron’s late father, Herman Neugass, had become a cause célèbre by taking a moral stand against competing in the 1936 Olympics. At the time, the young sprinter’s protest inspired hundreds of supportive telegrams, though the movement ultimately failed to instigate an American boycott.
Meeting Pirron again sparked Lin’s imagination. “The more I started thinking, the more incredible it became,” she says. “My boys had been athletes—one was a gymnast who competed internationally and the other was a competitive soccer player in college. Knowing what kids have to go through, I couldn’t believe a 21-year-old would give it all up for moral reasons.”
Thinking the tale would make good play material, Lin kicked off a research endeavor bigger than any she’d undertaken before. She soon realized that Neugass’ character could really only tell half the story, and combined his experience with that of Sam Stoller, another Jewish athlete. Though Stoller and a second Jewish sprinter, Marty Glickman, chose to attend the Games, they were prevented from running their race at the last minute. The reason, it is now commonly believed, was a confluence of Nazi pressure and acquiescence by American officials who harbored subtle, and sometimes not so subtle, anti-Semitic sentiments.
With most of the key characters deceased, Lin was left to extrapolate. She chose to open the play at a national college track championship in 1935; she knows both sprinters attended the meet, though there’s no unimpeachable record of their having met.
In the interest of dramatic tension, Lin set up an adversarial relationship between the raw Stoller, who revels in his Jewishness by singing and yakking in Yiddish, and the more strait-laced Neugass, a fully assimilated third-generation Jew from a proper Southern household. In time, though, the two come to grudgingly admire each other. Soon after the characters are introduced, Lin throws the audience a screwball: Neugass, the reluctant Jew, will be the one who takes the moral stand, while the proud Stoller accedes to attending the Games.
“It makes sense because an assimilated person will tend to respond to things in a non-Jewish way, using the political process,” Lin argues. “Neugass winds up making waves, but in a nonsectarian manner. Because Sam is in the immigrant generation, used to daily Jewish rituals, he was more of an in-your-face kind of guy who thought he could show those Nazis and dispute their lie by winning.”
The play ends with a fictional meeting of the sprinters in 1939. In reality, though, the incident has no such tidy closure. Neugass appears to have come to terms with his past—he’s not mentioned in most historical accounts of the heavily studied Games, and he remained low-key about the incident all his life. Unlike Neugass, who settled into a successful career as a retail executive in Washington, Stoller was “emotionally devastated” by being benched in 1936. He took a motley succession of jobs (including a short stint as the announcer for the Washington Senators baseball team in the 1940s), tried his hand at movies, and surfaced in the ’70s as a television executive in Roanoke. In the mid-’80s, Glickman was able to track him down in Florida. But by the time his former teammate was ready to make a visit, Stoller had died—his wife indicated that for as long as they’d been together, Stoller had struggled to put the Olympic experience out of his mind.
Of the two characters, Lin identifies more closely with the assimilated Neugass. (During what she describes as a “secular” childhood, Lin attended the Episcopalian National Cathedral School.) Yet she acknowledges the difficulty of the pair’s dilemma. “They want to choose, but can’t,” she says. “They made the only choice they could, and neither got what they wanted. There was no right choice.” Lin says she took special care not to turn Running Wild and her other plays (which address such political controversies as the relationship between inner-city Korean merchants and their predominantly African-American clientele) into polemics. Audiences, she knows, “don’t like being preached at.”
Nonetheless, it is moral themes to which Lin most often returns. The attraction, she says, is that such issues “are as timeless as you can get.” Regardless of one’s ethnic heritage.