The Profiler: Playwright Mercedes Cohen

The Profiler: Playwright Mercedes Cohen

Denise Shelton
Giovanni is Here

Clay David portraying Benjamin Levi in Mercedes Cohen's play, "Giovanni is Here." Photo by Mercedes Cohen.

Alameda resident Mercedes Cohen is the author of “Giovanni Is Here,” a new play produced recently at Ross Valley Players as part of its RAW (Ross Alternative Works) program. The play, set during the Nazi occupation of Rome, is based on actual events and concerns a Catholic family and its efforts to hide a pregnant Jewish woman from the S.S.

A native of Southern California, Cohen holds master's degree in professional writing from the University of Southern California and is a retired teacher. She and her husband, Michael - who directed the Ross Valley production - relocated to the Bay Area in part because of its thriving theater scene. The Alamedan caught up with Cohen, who answered some questions about herself and her play.

Not many stories about the Holocaust are set in Italy. What motivated you to write about this time and place?
During a visit to Rome in 1980, I asked an elderly woman in the Roman ghetto where she was during the roundup of the Jews, and she said that she was delivering a wedding dress. Her story is the opening premise of "Giovanni Is Here," and the play is based on real historical events and people. Researching the time period revealed so many fascinating events, like the gold ransom. The roundup and subsequent deportation of Jews. The main character, Belle Levi, is saved by the Romano family and this represents the many good Italians who saved the majority of Jews. Each person's survival depends on finding an inner strength to persevere and hold on to hope, love, and laughter.

What was it about this story that inspired you to present it as a play as opposed to telling it as a novel or a short story?
In a play there’s an immediacy of the action. The interaction between the audience and the actors adds another dimension of involvement. It thrilled me to hear the laughter which lightened up much of the play and established relationships between the characters. Nonna teasing Maria about Carlo, the family making fun of Angelo’s opera singing and Carlo’s incessant jokes, all these moments brought the audience closer to the characters. In fact, in one of the dangerous scenes, some audience members were so involved that they voiced warnings for the family. It means so much to me to be able to reach people with a story that illustrates a full range of human experiences. The audiences’ enthusiasm gave me such warm and instant feedback. A play provides a means for a story and characters to come alive on the stage. As far as a novel goes, I am beginning work on a novelization. I think this story can also become a wonderful novel and I will be able to go into each character’s back story.

The play is set in Rome, and the all characters are Italian citizens, yet Italian accents and what we have come to think of as Italian mannerisms were not used by the actors. What was the thinking behind this?
If the play were set in New York, and the characters were speaking English with an Italian accent, that would make sense. This story takes place in Rome and all the characters speak Italian. Why would someone speak his (or) her native language with an accent? Some Hollywood films have Germans speaking with an English accent in war movies. The most realistic way would be for all the characters to speak Italian with subtitles, but we are here and I believe that the story reaches beyond an accent or mannerisms.

How do you know when your play isn't working?
The play isn’t working when it doesn’t make sense and creating this piece with a strong team helped tremendously in solving those problems. The director, Michael Cohen, my husband, spoke up when difficulties arose and he also solved many of the challenges. The actress for Belle, Jocelyn Roddie, said that she was a fast costume changer but she needed more than a minute to go from being nine months pregnant to not being pregnant and being dressed up. To solve the problem, I wrote the monologue for Mario, which helped the plot and the characterization.

What do the actors bring to the process the first time a play is produced?
A play calls for interaction between the playwright, actors, director and support staff. The cast embodied the characters. Each cast member had insights into his (or) her character and I listened to the input. I didn’t always agree with everything, but I made adjustments or I gave the actor the back story to explain the actions. The first time a play is produced, bringing the story to life depends very heavily on the cast and I was so fortunate to have such a fabulous troupe. The support staff is key to the success of the play too. Maureen Scheuenstuhl as the stage manager organized and found many of the props as well as the furniture. She made invaluable suggestions to help the play. Ann Armour also worked in many roles as rehearsal assistant and assistant stage manager. She also made many helpful suggestions. The RAW (Ross Alternative Works) committee also had a big impact because they chose to produce the play.

What is it like working with your husband as director?
We’ve been married for 33 years and have shared so many experiences on our roller coaster of life. I know that Michael directs from the heart. He’s organized and professional. From the first draft to the final version on the stage, my husband supported the vision of this story. Without his encouragement, I don’t think I could have written it. His direction guided the cast and I am so grateful for all his input. This is not to say that we never had a disagreement, but we worked things out. We can discuss things in a rational manner with explanations, most of the time.

Who has the last word as to what happens on stage?
Technically, the playwright has the last word, but I know the value of compromising. There were some things that I wanted to change shortly before opening, but the director told me to put it in the next version. I disagreed with one of the entrances of one of the characters, but it was obvious that the entrance chosen kept the flow of the play going. I wanted more music in between scenes, but was advised to cut the music and it did make sense. How could I complain when 98 percent of what I wanted was done? I think things worked out well.

What is the most frustrating part of being an emerging playwright?
I’ve come to an age where I can’t be referred to as "a new, young playwright." I had a career as a high school English teacher and now I’m retired. Finally, I have the time to dedicate to my writing and I take encouragement from others who have had a writing career after retiring, like Frank McCourt. I heard a discouraging remark at the Theater Bay Area conference which was something like: "In the Bay area new plays are done. Then they are done." I hope that this isn’t true and that a successful play can be done in many Bay Area theaters.

What characters from your own life inspired the characters in your story?
Nonna, and even some of her lines, come straight from my grandmother, Anna Grunert. During the Depression, she and her husband had saved money to buy a brick house, but all they got for their money was a sewing machine. She wore a black dress to her wedding because she was pregnant. My mother pretended to be pregnant in order to smuggle black market goods in a fake belly during the war. Angelo reminds me of my father, and also somewhat of my father-in-law, who wanted everyone to be happy. My husband’s Aunt Fay could look at a dress in the window of a department store and make a pattern for a knock-off. The experience of pregnancy came partly from my own experience and the thoughts, hopes and fears of that experience.

What's next for “Giovanni is Here” and for Mercedes Cohen?
This echoes the most common question I was asked at the talk-back discussions. One woman saw the play three times and brought her friends and neighbors and she wasn’t a relative of any cast members. The audiences responded so positively to every performance. I am submitting the play to various theaters around the country. My very first submission, right after the play closed, was to Alameda’s Altarena Playhouse. I love living here and it would be so wonderful to be able to share this play with more people. "Giovanni is Here" could be staged beautifully on the intimate stage of the playhouse. Of course, I am looking forward to future productions.