On the Anniversary of Indecent’s Closing

by Alyssa Sileo

Dedication to any craft is not “making something out of nothing,” but rather, building something out of a need. This act shows a person’s belief that one’s art is bigger than oneself, and for a purpose that blossoms beyond a lifetime.

From the seat of an audience member, it’s an honor to experience the tellings and retellings of stories of liberation. It’s something that could put one in touch with their ancestors and the heart of their communities.

One year ago today, an incredible cast took their final bow after the closing Broadway performance of Indecent by Paula Vogel. I’ve been profoundly affected by this production and continue to be compelled on the daily, thanks to it entering my life. The creation and legacy of this play — and the older play that it’s about — deserves a spot in LGBTQ+ history.

Indecent chronicles the life of another play from the early 20th century called God of Vengeance, by Polish-Jewish writer Sholem Asch, about a man who runs a brothel in his basement. He seeks a husband for his daughter Rifkele, but unbeknownst to the family, she and one of the prostitutes have fallen in love.

Asch’s play was considerably well-received in Europe. But the minute it departed from the Yiddish language and was performed in English on the Broadway stage, the entire cast was arrested and charged with indecency. The lesbian relationship and onstage-hurling of the Torah did not move American audiences in the way that Asch toiled for.

After this shame, the play was only faithfully performed by wandering European players, performing Act I in a German alley and then Act II in an Polish basement…any place where people would gather to hear Asch’s work. They received compensation in a single loaf of bread or permission to sleep in their makeshift performance space. The troupes that believed in Asch’s disputed prose more than their growling stomachs then became Holocaust victims, labeled as “undesirables,” tragically dying for their craft.

The play fizzled from the memory of audiences of both continents where it had played, save the creators of the next work that took to the 2017 New York stage. Indecent’s liberation of the story of the earlier players speaks to the ever-relevant xenophobia, homophobia, and suppression of the arts. It seems only proper that the nameless 20th-century troupes, ripped from the world, are honored on their beloved space — the theatre — and are given a 2017 voice amongst more compassionate audiences. Indecent now stands as one of the most prolific works tackling the artist experience.

Indecent inspires me to write stories that are beacons for any person who feels as though their own narrative can’t be told. The bravery of Asch’s players paved the way for socially conscious theatre, even if it took over 100 years for this particular story to reach more compassionate audiences.

Indecent also charges me to champion stories with all of my heart. One of the characters in Vogel’s play is Lemml, a man who found theatre through sitting in on the first read of God of Vengeance. He then makes sharing this play his life mission and becomes the stage manager of basically every early production. Lemml is the embodiment of my favorite life principle — one’s efforts to put good into the world will never be erased. The love Lemml had for this play not only helped it move around the world, but also cemented a legacy for it that the creators of Indecent were able to discover it and share it with 2017 audiences.

I always wonder if the original players have some way of knowing that their story has found new life in Indecent. On a personal level, Vogel’s play has helped me find two of my best friends (one from the stage door, one from the Twitter fandom.) It’s inspired me to create another initiative, called The Lemml Project, which is just what I call the thing I encourage my pals to do when they buy a copy of Indecent, which is buy another one and give it to a friend.

Indecent has also taught me so much about what it means to be an arts advocate. Asking myself “what would Lemml do” is how I develop The Laramie Project Project. I want to exhibit my belief in this story and help it plant beautiful seeds in new audiences’ souls.

Lastly, the queer narratives within this play as well as God of Vengeance are remarkable examples of proper representation. Too often we’re subject to destructive depictions of queer women within media and stories as predatory, shallow, sex objects, or any other invalidating stereotype that makes it difficult for queer women to come to terms with who they are (raising my hand.) But seeing a wholesome, beautiful connection between two loving women in this story is nothing short of a blessing. This helps me feel grateful for and confident in my own queerness.

Indecent’s production slogan, “Art Matters,” is a prayer and thank-you note to all previous creators that have said difficult things to difficult audiences, opening windows between worlds past, present, and future.

A filmed version of the play is available on Broadway HD. You can also buy the play at your local bookstore that sells plays, or online here, here, or here. (Or many other online outlets. And how about you buy an extra copy and partake in The Lemml Project?) And be sure to be on the lookout for a production coming to your town. I myself will hopefully be on an Indecent-fan-tour with my aforementioned two best friends this upcoming spring — catching the end of the run in Boston and the start of the run in Philadelphia!

About the Author:

Alyssa Sileo’s Thespian identity comes first and foremost in anything she carries out. As a member of the Drew University Class of 2022, she studies theatre arts, women’s and gender studies, and Spanish. She’s a proud NJ Thespian Alumni and member of their state chapter board. She is the leader of the international performances network The Laramie Project Project, which unites worldwide productions and readings of the acclaimed Tectonic Theater Project play and encourages community-based LGBTQ+ advocacy. Alyssa is humbled to serve as the 2017 Spirit of Matthew Award winner and as a Youth Ambassador for Matthew Shepard Foundation. She believes there is an advocacy platform tucked into every piece of the theatre catalogue and intends to write outreach into the cannon.