Corrections or additions?
This article by Anne Rivera was prepared for the December 15, 2004
issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Lighting the Way Against Bigotry
The Passage Theater’s family holiday presentation, an original musical
entitled "Nightlights," opens on Friday, December 17, to run through
Sunday, December 19 at the Mill Hill Playhouse. Billed as a "workshop"
production, it is based on events that took place in Billings,
Montana, during the 1993-’94 holiday season; and it is definitely a
musical with a message.
Adapted by Montclair resident Janice Cohn from her 1995 children’s
book, "The Christmas Menorahs: How a Town Fought Hate," the production
features music and lyrics by Harvey Edelman and Neil Fishman. Passage
Theater’s associate artistic director David L. White directs; and a
12-member cast includes both area professional actors – Erika Becker,
Devon Jordan, Rachel Lavery, Adam W. Nardini, and Peter Ogden – and
Trenton youngsters from the theater’s State Street Project.
When Cohn, a psychotherapist and children’s book author, first heard
the story of neo-Nazis who had terrorized minority families in
Billings, but were defeated by townspeople joining forces to fight
them, she felt compelled to write about it. The events rated only a
brief mention in The New York Times, she says, but they touched people
around the country "in extraordinary ways."
The campaign against minorities in Billings escalated as Hanukkah
began in December, 1993, when bricks were thrown through the windows
of Jewish homes displaying menorahs. Thanks to an enlightened police
chief, a newspaper editor who denounced the bigotry, ministers who
urged members of their congregations to display menorahs in
solidarity, and the courage of thousands who did so, the violence
The amazing thing about the way Billings residents came together to
combat prejudice is that the town was very conservative, Cohn points
out, with no previous history of activism. The population of 80,000
included only 50 Jewish families and about the same number of
Cohn went to Billings, where she met the town leaders and the families
who were involved. Some events in the book – and the musical – have
been slightly altered, she says, but they are all true, including the
names of the protagonists.
The action begins on the third night of Hanukkah. Isaac Schnitzer
(played by 11-year-old West Windsor resident Joshua Rose, who was
"Tiny Tim" in McCarter Theater’s 2002 production of "The Christmas
Carol") is doing his homework when suddenly he hears a loud crash. He
rushes into his bedroom to find the window shattered. The electric
menorah that had been on the window sill lies in pieces on the floor.
The police chief (played by Nardini) is called; Mrs. Schnitzer (played
by Lavery) is interviewed by a local television station; and the
Schnitzer family makes headlines. Soon the entire town is aware of the
situation. "In my play and in the book, there is one town meeting,"
Cohn says. "In reality, there were many meetings, as a series of
escalating acts and threats took place."
She points out that well-meaning people urged the Jewish families to
take down their menorahs; but that in the end there were menorahs in
every window. "This play is about not being a bystander," Cohn says,
"but about standing up to bullies. Fortunately, the people of Billings
realized prejudice was not a problem for only the Jews or the
African-Americans but for the whole town."
Cohn has traveled throughout the United States, discussing the book in
schools, synagogues and churches. "Kids love the story," she says.
"They seem to identify with Isaac. No one wants to be alone."
It is one thing to write a children’s book about the events in
Billings, but a dramatic production is a different matter. Director
White, who worked with Cohn on the play, says that transforming the
noted children’s book into good theater was a challenge. "We have used
movement and music in place of words," he explains. "It is meant to be
performed by kids," Cohn adds.
At one recent rehearsal youngsters from the State Street Project – Kya
Dixon, Valona Givens, A.J. Holland, Sarah Kate Levy, Lashae Averhart,
and Shountia Portis – were working on a snappy rendition of the song,
"If Everybody Looked the Same," complete with a dance routine by
Portis. "I’m not a dancer," White says. "One day during rehearsal
Shountia just started dancing to that song, so I asked her to
choreograph the entire piece."
Following each performance, there is an interfaith panel discussion of
the issues it raises. Sponsored by the Kidsbridge organization, which
conducts diversity appreciation and character education programs in
Mercer County, the panel includes representatives of the Jewish,
Muslim, and Christian faiths. Also participating are spokespeople from
the NJ Center for Character Education at Rutgers and the NJ Commission
for Holocaust Education.
"Unfortunately, bias crime is a current problem in Mercer County,"
says Kidsbridge executive director Lynne Azarchi. "The interfaith
discussion will provide an opportunity for the audience to understand
Before she began working on the musical, Cohn was developing a project
for use in the classroom, to include background material and a
discussion guide on the Billings events. She invites teachers to call
800-666-6465 or E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
"Children are exposed these days to a world that is such a dangerous
and hate-filled place," Cohn points out, "it is more important than
ever for them to appreciate the Billings story."
– Anne Rivera
streets, Trenton. Friday, December 17, 7 p.m.; Saturday, December 18,
3 and 6 p.m.; Sunday, December 19, 3 and 6 p.m. $10; $5 for children.
Call 609-392-0766, or visit www.passagetheatre.org.
Playful Theater Productions seeks actors for "Suessical, the Musical."
Auditions are Saturday, January 8, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Cast of 25 adult
roles and six children’s roles (over 10 years old). Production opens
April 1 at Kelsey Theater. Call 609-882-9636 for appointment.
Pennington Players seeks actors for "The Truly Remarkable
Puss-in-Boots." Auditions are Saturday, January 8, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.,
and Sunday, January 9, noon to 4 p.m. Roles are available for adults,
teens, and children over 10. Call 609-737-7529 for appointment.
The Academy Theater on Route 130 in Bordentown auditions for Kander &
Ebb’s "Cabaret" on Saturday and Sunday, January 8 and 9, from 1 to 5
p.m. Be prepared to sing 16 bars, dance audition, and read from the
script. All parts are open except that of Sally Bowles. Call
The American Red Cross Central New Jersey Donor Center at 707
Alexander Road is open Monday through Thursday, 12:30 p.m. to 7:30
p.m., Friday from 8 a.m. to 2:45 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday from 7
a.m. to 1:45 p.m. To schedule an appointment, please call 800-GIVE
Saint Peter’s University Hospital offers a Safe Sitter class for boys
and girls ages 11 to 13 on Tuesday, December 28, 9:15 a.m. to 4:15
p.m. The class will be held at the Sister Marie de Pazzi Conference
Center, 254 Easton Avenue, in New Brunswick. This medically accurate
program teaches youths how to handle emergencies when caring for young
children. Cost: $50. Call 732-745-6699.
CAPPS at Peddie School seeks people of all ages to assist with box
office, ushering, gift shop, refreshment sales, and administrative
help. Call 609-490-7550 for information.
Middlesex County golfers may register for the 2005 season at Middlesex
County courses. The fee of $35 for county residents ($45 for
non-residents and $30 for seniors) includes use of the automated tee
time system and discounted rates. The courses include Meadows at
Middlesex (609-799-4000), Tamarack (732-821-8881) or the newest,
Raritan Landing (732-885-9600).
Dorothea’s House offers Italian classes at Dorothea’s House, 120 John
Street, Princeton begin on Wednesdays or Saturdays starting January 5.
Adults pay $115 and children, ages 4 to 14, pay $75 for 15 week
sessions. Choose from beginner, intermediate or advanced level. Call
908-359-1564 or E-mail: email@example.com.
Arts Council of Princeton offers winter classes for adults, teens, and
children including ceramics, painting, drawing, mixed media,
photography, dance, drama, and creative writing. For information and
registration, visit www.artscouncilofprinceton.org or call
Jewish Community Center offers winter drama classes for kindergartners
through fifth grade on Sundays, beginning January 1. Drama Stage
explores visual arts, music, movement, and storytelling. There are
also art and sports classes available. A winter sports camp will be
held on Monday to Thursday, December 27 to 30. Visit www.jcctoday.org
or call 609-883-9550.
Bucks County Writer seeks poetry, fiction, essays, and artwork
submissions for the spring issue. Submit by E-mail at
BCW@writersroom.net or to Writers Room of Bucks County, 4 West Oakland
Avenue, Doylestown, PA 18901. Deadline is Wednesday, January 5. Visit
www.writersroom.net or call 215-348-1663 for information.
Third Annual New Hope Indoor Sculpture Exhibition is open to sculptors
working in all media, deadline: January 1. Maquettes, proposals and
rendering for larger works, installations, and mixed media pieces are
welcome. Accepted artwork is insured.
Exhibition opens April 9 and continues through May 1. Applications may
be downloaded at www.NewHopeArtsInc.org. For more information contact
Newhopearts@aol.com or call 215-862-3396.
The Arts Council of Princeton seeks crafters, artists, food and
merchandise vendors, nonprofit organizations, and performers for the
annual outdoor festival, Communiversity, to be held Saturday, April
23. Deadline: March 14. For information visit
www.artscouncilofprinceton.org or call 609-924-8777.
Korean American Community E-Bulletin, announcements of events and
activities in the area, is available by sending e-mail to Sophie Kimm
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