Though a bit gimmicky, Tough Jews delivers a stark, gritty look at Toronto’s history
Tough Jews—a play by Michael Ross Albert presented by The Storefront Theatre—is an intriguing twist on both the typical story of early 20th century Jewish immigrants and the classic Prohibition-era gangster tale.
It’s a funny and tragic adventure which explores hard questions of morality, intergenerational trauma, and the lengths to which people will go to protect their family.Tough Jews is set in Kensington Market in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s, a time when violence against Jews and other immigrants was common in Toronto. It features the Wolfman family, Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, who are struggling to get ahead in a new, sometimes hostile environment.
The late father of the family ran a shoe store. His sons have turned to more lucrative but less legal pursuits and are running a speakeasy in the basement. The play starts with a bang—literally—as shots are fired, and the cousin of an American gangster is killed. With the murder, the family of small time criminals is thrown even farther into the world of liquor running, drugs, and organized crime.
While the underworld is the setting for Tough Jews, the real drama is in the relationships between the Wolfman children and their mother, Ida. It’s an ensemble piece with each family member playing a key role in the story, and I thought all the performances were very strong.
Luis Fernandes was excellent as Joe, the oldest brother who left school at ten to and now uses his muscle to help support the family. He just wants to settle down with his blonde, non-Jewish wife in Florida, but can’t break away from his circumstances.
G. Kyle Shields (Teddy) showed great range, evolving from the sheltered baby brother who wants to honor his father’s memory to a hardened and bitter realist.
Theresa Tova, however, gave the standout performance as Ida, the matriarch. I was anticipating a stereotype. But from her first lines, you realize that, despite the accent, the guilt, and the “oy veys mir,” this is not your typical Jewish mother. Her main concern when she sees a dead body in her basement is where she is now going to get her clothes mended— since her seamstress is the dead man’s mother. She has suffered and lost too much during the pogroms in Russia to care about religion or law. She only cares about protecting her family.
The show is actually performed in a basement in Kensington Market made to look like a 1920’s bar, and which you enter through a back door in the alley. Drinks are available for purchase before the show and during intermission. The space is small which makes for an up-close, intimate and multi-sensory experience. You smell the cigarette smoke, hear the loud yelling (there’s a lot of yelling) and see the sweat, tears, and blood. There’s a lot of blood too.
In addition to the authentic décor, the dialogue is full of period slang. Women are dolls, prison is the big house, and guns are bean-shooters. Maybe that’s how people really talked in the 1920’s, but to me it seemed too much and a little gimmicky. The story and the action felt real enough not to need it.
Tough Jews portrays a real part of Toronto’s history that is often forgotten. Though we are now seen as a tolerant and multicultural city that welcomes immigrants and refugees, that hasn’t always been the case. And at a time when anti-Semitism and anti-immigrant incidents are on the rise in Toronto, I think the show couldn’t be more relevant.
- Tough Jews is playing at Kensington Hall (56 Kensington Avenue) until April 16, 2017
- Performances are Wednesday – Saturday at 8pm and Sundays at 2pm
- There is a matinee performance on Saturday April 8 at 2pm which will be preceded by a historical walking tour of Kensington Market at noon.
- Tickets are $25 and $20 for students/seniors/arts workers and can purchased online or at the door.
- Kensington Hall is not wheelchair accessible and the performance space is down a steep flight of stairs.
Photo of Blue Bigwood-Mallin, G. Kyle Shields, and Luis Fernandes by John Gundy