Arts

'A Refugee Love Story': How Hannah Moscovitch's new play honours her great-grandparents

The award-winning playwright's latest work tells the real life tale of her paternal great-grandparents, who fled Romania in the early 1900s.

'When you're surrounded by trauma for so long, you have to find a way to laugh at it'

Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story. (Carly Beamish)

Most playwrights begin their careers telling autobiographical stories. Hannah Moscovitch is not most playwrights.

Up until this point, the Ottawa-born theatrical wunderkind has dedicated her craft to subjects foreign to her own experience. Her 2006 breakout The Russian Play was a love story set in a Siberian gulag; 2007's Governor General's Award-nominated East of Berlin, centred on the son of a Nazi war criminal; 2013's This Is War depicted the lives of Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan.

"My work has almost always been consciously anti-autobiographical," Moscovitch says from Halifax, where she's lived since 2013. "I intentionally write about things I don't know anything about. I've never really thought my own stories were that interesting, and so I haven't been compelled to tell them — until now."

With 14 plays under her belt, a shelf full of awards and commissions from companies across North America in development, Moscovitch is doing a creative 180 with her latest work. Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story tells the real life tale of her paternal great grandparents, Chaim and Chaya Moscovitch, who arrived in Canada in 1908, fleeing pogroms in Romania — large-scale massacres of Jews that were becoming increasingly frequent.

Hannah Moscovitch. (Tarragon Theatre)

"It's probably counterintuitive, but to deal with more personal material, I think I needed the confidence of middle-age," she says. "Most artists start with what they know. But I always wanted a mask to be able to see the work from the outside so I could understand its impact on the audience. A show like this feels riskier, because it's a lot harder to see it objectively."

Old Stock was catalyzed in 2015. Moscovitch and her husband — director Christian Barry, who helms the production — had just welcomed their son Elijah that summer, and the usual flurry of family visits ensued. In September, her Aunt Enid arrived in Halifax with a dual purpose: she wanted to see Elijah, but she also intended to visit the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21, a detailed archive of the 3.7 million immigrants who passed through Halifax from 1895 to 1971. The goal was to learn more about their family's arrival in Canada — a subject that had, until then, proven elusive.

"People who come from wealthy, aristocratic backgrounds often maintain really detailed genealogies because they think of their history with pride," Moscovitch says. "But it's kind of a trademark of poor families that they don't know anything about their past. The story is usually just something about how they were fleeing terrible conditions or violence, but everything else tends to be willfully forgotten."

Most artists start with what they know. But I always wanted a mask to be able to see the work from the outside so I could understand its impact on the audience. A show like this feels riskier, because it's a lot harder to see it objectively.- Playwright Hannah Moscovitch

What they'd expected to be a one hour excursion expanded to fill an entire day, with Moscovitch rocking her son in his stroller to keep him docile and stealing away to breastfeed while the staff pored over records. The visit to the museum was driven by personal curiosity, not the thought of researching a play — but as her family's history poured out, she began to think there might be a story worth telling.

Of course, the tale of refugees fleeing genocide, hoping a new country would welcome them, also had contemporary political resonance. The fallout from the Syrian civil war was gaining international attention at the same time that Canadians were preparing for a federal election. Then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper was ginning up enthusiasm among his base with dog-whistling like his "barbaric cultural practices" tip line — the show's title comes from his infamous quip about "old-stock Canadians" during an anti-refugee riff at a 2015 leaders' debate.

But the urgency to write the play was really crystalized by one of the most famous photographs of the last decade: the image of three year old Alan Kurdi, whose lifeless body washed up on a beach in Turkey after his family tried to escape Syria in a tiny rubber raft.

Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story. (Carly Beamish)

"I remember it so clearly because Elijah was two months old and we'd taken him to be vaccinated," Moscovitch says. "He started to cry after he got the shot and Christian and I just held him together and started to sob. Before I had a kid, children were largely symbolic to me. But as a mother, the reaction I had to that photograph was amplified. Now I can imagine what it would be like to lose a child. You would never recover from that."

Despite its occasionally dark subject matter, Moscovitch stresses that Old Stock has a surprising amount of comedy. Like the story, she credits this interplay of humour and tragedy to her family history — part of what she called an "implicitly Jewish sensibility" in a 2013 interview with The Forward.

"Part of the Jewish aesthetic is that everything has this sense of lightness," she says. "You cover dark material, but you find a tone that's comic. When you're surrounded by trauma for so long, you have to find a way to laugh at it if you want to survive. It's an element in nearly everything I've written. In that way, I guess the show isn't so different from what I've been doing all along."

Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story. Created by Hannah Moscovitch, Ben Caplan, and Christian Barry. Until May 14th. The Waiting Room, Halifax. www.2btheatre.com; July 13-15, National Arts Centre, Ottawa. www.nac-cna.ca

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