“The Rosenberg/Strange Fruit Project” is an imaginative tour-de-force

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John Jiler on stage wearing a black hat and a black and white strped shirt
John Jiler and Lee Odom: Rosenberg/Strange Fruit Project. Photo by Andrea Phox Photography

A one-man performance piece about the life of Robert Meeropol

John Jiler dancing and Lee Odom playing the clarinet.
John Jiler and Lee Odom: Rosenberg/Strange Fruit Project. Photo by Andrea Phox Photography

Actor/playwright John Jiler’s wife told him an interesting piece of history one day: the sons of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the only Americans tried and executed for espionage during peacetime, were adopted by the man who wrote Billie Holiday’s signature song, “Strange Fruit.” From this seed grew The Rosenberg/Strange Fruit Project, a one-man performance piece about the life of Robert Meeropol, the younger son of the Rosenbergs. This flight of theatrical imagination is now on display by the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch — and it must be experienced.

Jiler has written a series of monologues which, when strung together, create a kind of dialogue or debate between those who saw the Rosenbergs as innocent pawns in a larger battle of ideologies and those who saw their political activity as a rejection, even a betrayal, of all the values post-war America stood for. Jiler, skillfully directed by Margarett Perry, portrays all the characters in the play, starting with Robert, the heartbroken six-year-old losing his parents, becoming the middle-aged man fighting for the same ideals they espoused. But Jiler also portrays Irving Kaufman, the judge who presided over the Rosenbergs’ trial; both Julius and Ethel Rosenberg; and Abel Meeropol, Robert’s adoptive father. He is W.E.B. DuBois, the early Black rights activist, and Billie Holiday, who sang the definitive version of “Strange Fruit,” a song about lynchings in the USA written by Abel Meeropol. He is Lewis Powell, a creator of the modern conservative intellectual movement before he was appointed to the Supreme Court, and Oveta Culp Hobby, the lone woman in Eisenhower’s cabinet, among other characters.

Balancing Jiler’s acting is the musical accompaniment of Lee Odom on clarinet and drums. Her evocative melodic choices add a richer tone to this play, making it much more than a recitation of facts or a display of warring political philosophies. Odom’s music is the “second actor” in this one-man tour-de-force, providing emotional balance to intellectual points of view. The use of clarinet and drums calls forth the “outsider” cultures of Jewish-Americans and African-Americans in mid-20th century America.

As with other productions at NJ Rep, the scenery and lighting take the simplest elements and infuse them with imagination.  In this case, semi-sheer full-length curtains creating a zig-zag pathway from the back to the front of the stage, a star field at the back of the set, and soft spotlights on both performers provide an almost dream-like air surrounding the re-telling of this side note of history.  Kudos to scenic designer Jessica Parks and lighting designer Jill Nagle, performing the extraordinary stage magic that has come to be a hallmark of NJ Rep productions.

John Jiler on stage wearing a black and white shirt, dark pants and a scarf around his neck and Lee Odom in in the background holding a clarinet
John Jiler and Lee Odom: Rosenberg/Strange Fruit Project. Photo by Andrea Phox Photography

The Rosenberg/Strange Fruit Project may stir up old memories and resurrect old arguments about the guilt or innocence of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. However, it brings attention to an early 50’s cause celebre and its lasting influences on the roots of today’s political thinking — a strange fruit, indeed. NJ Repertory Company succeeds again in bringing powerful new plays to the attention of its audiences. This is a show that must be seen about an event that is still in living memory. I cannot more strongly encourage you to see it.

The Rosenberg/Strange Fruit Project is presented by the New Jersey Repertory Company at the Lumia Theatre in Long Branch through April 2nd. For more information or to purchase tickets, go to njrep.org or call 732-229-3166. The wearing of masks is encouraged while in the building but is not mandatory.