News and Features

Dallas Playwright in NYC with a Play About Brooklyn Jews – and Bicycles

DivisionAvenueJoannaMary Rasmussen as Sarah and Jordan Feltner as Efraim rehearsing Division Avenue by Miki Bone

Dallas performer and playwright Miki Bone is getting her first New York staging. KERA’s Jerome Weeks reports that, oddly enough for a Texas writer, Bone chose to write about a Jewish conflict in Brooklyn.

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Miki Bone and her family have often visited New York, and in 2009, they sought out for something different. They took a walking tour of Williamsburg, a neighborhood in Brooklyn. Williamsburg is the long-established home of ten of thousands of Hasidic Jews. The Hasidim are a branch of mystical, Orthdox Judaism. They’re known for their conservative dress and their traditional ideas on the sexes and family life. But for years now, Williamsburg has also been a hot real estate market for young professionals fleeing the high rents of Manhattan. The neighborhood’s rapid gentrification has led to cultural conflicts the media have dubbed ‘the hipsters vs. the Hasidim.’

In 2009, on Bone’s walking tour, she sensed some of that tension. She took a photograph of several Hasidic men on a Williamsburg street with a nearby woman in tight jeans.

“I noticed if you walk by a member of that community,” Bone recalls, “they’ll turn their heads and look away, especially as they pass a female. And frankly, my first impression was that it was a little rude. But what I didn’t understand until later is that it actually’s a sign of respect.”

Miki wideBone (left) wasn”t happy with the photo image and so she turned it into an acrylic painting. Before submitting it to her graduate art class at UT-Dallas, she was required to research the background of her image. Bone has taught theater in Dallas, she”s acted here, she”s even written plays before. But it was researching that Williamsburg street scene that led her to write Division Avenue, her new play. It”s named for the street that divides Williamsburg into Hasidic and non-Hasidic neighborhoods.

Division Avenue is currently onstage in Manhattan as part of the Midtown International Theatre Festival. It focuses on a young Hasidic widower, Efraim, who’s decided he wants to study at a secular university. It’s not an easy choice. For the Hasidim, religion, family, education and community are all one. To leave one is, in many cases, to leave them all.

“It”s very difficult,” Bone says. Simply seeking a wider sort of education than the religious immersion offered in the Hasidic community could mean breaking with one”s family. “He would have to move outside of Williamsburg.”

To complicate matters more. Efraim has become involved with a young woman, Sarah. And to Efraim’s ultra-Orthodox father, Sarah is the enemy because — she rides a bicycle. In addition to thousands of Hasidim, Brooklyn is home to thousands of bicyclists. And as New York City has expanded its system of bike paths and bike sharing in recent years, the Hasidic community has pushed back. They’ve argued bicyclists weaving in and out of traffic are unsafe — and there are those bicycle shorts they wear. For the Hasidim, Bone says, it”s an issue of “moral safety” as much as traffic safety.

Dean Nolen (below) is a former North Texas actor and director who’s performed on Broadway and off-Broadway. These days, he teaches at Harden-Simmons University in Abilene — when he”s not in New York, like he is now, directing Division Avenue.

dean-nolenNolen notes that when the bike lanes were set down in Williamsburg, “the folks in the community were very unhappy. And they presented to their politicians that they wanted these bicycle pathways removed. They were indeed removed and then, overnight, they were put back by, quote unquote, hipsters, who have sort of invaded this community. And there’s a lot of resistance.”

In fact, when New York”s Citibike sharing program was inaugurated in June, it was quickly noted there were no kiosks for the bikes in South Williamsburg, where the Hasidim are concentrated.

All of this is why in Division Avenue, when Efraim’s father finds him in bed with Sarah, all the conflicts spill out — religious, cultural, legal, personal, educational. Efraim”s father, Moishe, is a businessman who”s pushed a lawsuit against the cyclists, and he recognizes Sarah as a bike-rider.

In an advance feature, the New York Daily News called Division Avenue ‘ripped from the headlines.’ But both Bone and Nolen say the play is really a warm comedy. It’s about human issues of family and faith and self-discovery. But now that it’s onstage in New York, the question is: Will a comedy by a Texas playwright about Hasidic Jews in Brooklyn play anywhere else – but New York?

“Of course,” says Bone, “I would love for it to go elsewhere. But as long as it’s made it there, I’m happy. It’s just been a very … interesting journey.