When Paula Vogel began writing “Indecent” in 2010, she had no idea how resonant its exploration of immigration woes, anti-Semitism and homophobia in the past century would become in the current political climate.
The Tony-nominated play, running until July 7 at L.A.’s Ahmanson Theater, traces the theatrical history of 1907 Yiddish play “God of Vengeance” from its birth in Poland to European productions, New York stages and back to Poland during World War II. Sholem Asch’s play features a romantic scene of two women on stage, and during a modified English-language staging on Broadway, it was deemed obscene. “Indecent” depicts the changing reactions to “God of Vengeance” and the struggles of those involved in the production to assimilate in America.
By the 2015 debut of “Indecent” at Yale Rep, with xenophobia on the rise, “it became very clear that the play was on target,” Vogel says. Beyond increasing hate speech toward immigrants and people of color, the playwright observed a similarly regressive attitude toward the LGBT community, already in the air when Vogel began writing the play, and more overt since.
“Audiences are responding more strongly now than they were when we first presented it in New Haven, because it preceded the election of Trump,” Vogel says. “But the conditions were there that made the election possible.”
Audience reaction has been evolving as the production has moved from city to city. Whereas early theatergoers were still during key moments of “Indecent,” now they are noisome. Vogel, who cried every night while writing the play, has gotten used to teary audience sniffles and outright sobbing, both audible during the opening performance at the Ahmanson this month.
During its New York run, a Chinese man came up to the playwright weeping, “and he said, ‘thanks for telling people how I feel as a non-native speaker,’” Vogel recalls, “and I said, ‘I want to apologize as an American. I don’t know what to say except, I’m so sorry.’ But fortunately I had a whole play to say that in.”
In Chicago, the cast had to do a matinee after the Tree of Life massacre in Pittsburgh, she continues. And Minneapolis audiences brought their own experiences with immigration in that Midwestern city. In Los Angeles, the show is running amid escalating political debates about migrant detention centers along the U.S. border.
“When we were working on this with the cast out of town, the fact that we would have concentration camps on our border, that couldn’t be envisioned,” Vogel says.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright had long been aware of “God of Vengeance” — a professor told her about it when she was studying at Cornell — and she also knew about the obscenity trial in the 1920s, a topic that co-creator and director Rebecca Taichman wrote her Yale dissertation about. During an initial call with Taichman, Vogel envisioned an acting troupe in a dusty Polish attic during World War II, preparing to perform “God of Vengeance,” and took on the project.
During her research for “Indecent,” Vogel also examined immigration restrictions for Jews and Italians during the 1920s, a period when the KKK was rising in America, and became convinced it was a perfect metaphor for contemporary political tensions in this country.
“You have to choose a very specific story to tell a universal one,” she says. The story of a Polish playwright whose language is replaced with English, as shown in “Indecent,” resonates for “people who are here now as immigrants and feeling the suppression of their cultural identity in America,” Vogel adds.
“I’m very grateful to the play because it made me examine my identity but I also felt the play was a metaphor for what’s happening now,” she says. “It’s a moment where we need to look at what we’re doing to immigrants and immigration and what it means to define ourselves as Americans to exclude so many of our population.”
Taichman won the 2017 Tony for her direction and Vogel is gratified that “Indecent” continues to tour around the country.
“Rebecca was saying in 2015 when we were in rehearsal, ‘I’m afraid the play is more relevant now than when we thought about doing it in 2010,’” Vogel says. “Well, that’s true in terms of the Los Angeles production.
“I think it’s incredibly important to get it out there,” she continues. “We have to align ourselves as a greater community or this hideous genocide, this hideous repression, will keep occurring because we look at people as other instead of as our community.”