The Rosenberg/Strange Fruit Project
Twilight Theatre Company
A slice of twentieth century American history is brought to life in John Jiler’s eloquent and thoughtful performance of The Rosenberg Strange Fruit Project, which centres on Robert Rosenberg, the son of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were executed by the state when he was six years old.
His story takes him from his adoption along with his brother by Abe Meeropol, who wrote the song "Strange Fruit" about Southern lynching that was made famous by Billie Holiday among others, to his later political activism.
In a remarkable performance, John Jiler switches easily from one character to the next, including in his stride Robert at different ages, Abe Meeropol, the black rights historian W E B Dubois, the bigoted right-wing judge at the Rosenbergs trial Irving Kaufman and the singer Billie Holiday among others. Each character is brought brilliantly to life.
John Jiler is a good deal of the time accompanied by the clarinettist Lee Odom. He explains that “the clarinet is the unifying sound between the Jewish (klezmer) and Black (jazz) cultures”. A key theme of the piece is the shared history of persecution and oppression.
Robert Rosenberg never accepted the judgement of the court that traumatised his life. He also points out that Ethel Rosenberg was the first woman to be executed for anything other than murder. He became an activist opposed to the American war against Vietnam. Late in the play, we hear the final letter his mum wrote to him from prison.
In talking about his role in life as a child and later as a much older man, he likens himself to a tugboat captain who nudges others in a way that brings them home safely.
Reviewer: Keith Mckenna