The Jewish Community Center of Greater Columbus is capping its 100th anniversary year with a world premiere production of "Elijah's Angel", based on the 1992 children's book by Columbus author Michael Rosen.
The book, which was illustrated by Columbus artist Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson, is fictionalized incident drawn from the real life friendship between Rosen and Columbus artist and woodworker Elijah Pierce. Rosen, who also adapted the play, tells Alison Holm the mutual friendships were what inspired the original book.
MR: It came out of an actual incident, and it came out of an actual friendship, and this is a book about someone I knew, cared about, and influenced me deeply. The illustrator is someone that I knew, care about deeply - that's Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson. She drew and carved and spent time artistically, in his shop.
The day that I brought my story over to Aminah, I said "Aminah, I just wrote a story about our friend Elijah, and I know this is crazy, but I want to see if I can get a publisher to have you illustrate it, because you've drawn Elijah and his shop so many times." And I knew that we shared him as an influence. And she came into the other room where she'd been painting and brought out a long scroll, and it was a portrait of Elijah. And it was wet; she had literally been working on it that day. And we traded, we traded story for art. She read the story right there, and said; yes, of course, I want to do this.
Q: In the book and in the play, the Michael that meets Elijah Pierce is a young boy,a 9-year old boy, but you were much older when you went to his barbershop on Long Street.
MR: I met Elijah when I was about 19, because the Howard, the late Howard, and Mimi Chenfeld - long time Columbus residents - they took me to see, to meet Elijah. They were just thrilled, look at these wonderful works... And then all through college and after college I would try to go every other month or so. I'd bring somebody new, we'd wander about the shop, and then the shop before a sort of gallery and shop when they annexed the second room....
I often think that it was natural to do a picture book because my relationship was as a child with Elijah. Not simply because he was so many years older, but because of the gob-smacking awe that I had in that space. Not just: "wow, it's such great talent". I mean, sure there was definitely that. There was the mesmerizing density of every surface being covered with his artwork, just as every hour of his life was filled with his faith in God. And to be a young Jewish kid who had some sense of religion, and likewise some respect for what it meant to be Christian, the way his faith infused his speech, his art, what he said was transfixing. And I wanted to capture that in the play and in the book. The theatricality of this tall, thin, soft-spoken, gravelly-voiced man who had essentially memorized the Bible -- at least as far I could tell.
He was very inviting of curiosity, and so it at no point occur to him that what he was sharing might be lost because you were too young, because you were of a different faith, because you were a different race. He simply offered his time and his stories and his artwork, in the kind of universal 'this is the work of God that I'm doing, and I welcome you to enjoy it.'
Q: What is it that you're hoping that people who don't have any familiarity with Elijah Pierce or even your own work... what would you like people who are leaving the play to take away?
MR: The sort of proud part of me likes to think that if I present something, and it's well done, and it's not sentimental - meaning it's a complicated situation - it's clear thinking about the mixed feelings that we share. I mean I would like the theatergoers, I guess, to be able to watch this experience, to see many of the issues that are glibly dismissed -- oh, you know; people should be nice, or people should be respectful, or this is would you should expect of people who are old, or this are what are expectations of kids who are little... what is really tolerance, and how do we actually respect one another, or diversity or our different interests. I mean, this is a story about a boy who doesn't do what the other kids do. he arrives from California, he's never seen snow before. I make the case for him being... for *needing* art. And though the kids don't at first appreciate that, they ultimately come around to valuing that. So, I guess I would like people to be able to look at the complexity of our relationships with one another, and come closer to honoring how nuanced they are.
Michael Rosen's play, "Elijah's Angel" is being performed by the Gallery players at the Jewish Community Center of Columbus over the next several days, starting on Saturday at the center's College Avenue campus.