Playwright Jessica Bellamy knows her way around a kitchen. The 32-year-old Melbourne-based Sydney playwright is experimenting with her own vegan version of a traditional Jewish honey cake (eaten at Jewish new year, which was yesterday). Eggs, butter and sour cream are replaced with chia seeds, oil and honey, and added to cinnamon, cocoa and flour. The result is delicious, sweet and comforting.
“Ooh yum,” she says with delight. “I’m really excited – I think this is going to be a roaring success.”
Audiences will have a chance to sample the dessert for themselves during Shabbat Dinner, a participatory hour-long show at Griffin Theatre. The play – named for the traditional Jewish Friday-night gathering, usually with family – is more dinner party than theatre; Bellamy invites audience members to join her at the table for elements of a three-course meal, wine, song, poetry and stories.
This is the fourth incarnation of Shabbat Dinner – it was first commissioned in 2013 by former theatre company Tamarama Rock Surfers, which was looking for a piece that explored the symbolism of food and sharing a meal together.
A first-generation Australian, Bellamy was brought up in a close-knit family with her sister by her Russian mother and grandparents, and her English father, whose ancestry is Romanian, Polish and Russian. Her parents are both Jewish and, when they married in the 1970s, they were considered “a good Jewish pairing”. The family would regularly gather with her grandparents to observe the day of rest known as the Shabbat, or the Sabbath, which begins at sundown on Friday night and goes until Saturday night. It’s often acknowledged by sharing a meal, wine, ceremonial candles and, most importantly in some instances, stories and songs.
With the passing of generations the custom became lost, so Bellamy decided to explore how we devise new rituals that suit us as we grow up, lose people dear to us, and create a new family unit of our own.
“For me that was about creating a new Shabbat dinner, whether that be in Melbourne with my partner who isn’t Jewish, my sister and our friends, having a meal, maybe lighting some candles but not necessarily the traditional white-pillar Shabbat candles, and generally connecting with people.”
When Bellamy was helping her grandfather pack up his house and move into a nursing home years after her grandmother had died, she came upon silver goblets and candlesticks. She also found her grandmother’s silver locket, which contained two black and white photos of her grandmother’s father, who was exiled by Stalin to Siberia for 27 years; and her great uncle who had survived fighting with the Red Army, only to be killed by a sniper when foraging for food the day after the war ended.
“For me, there’s something very important about reclaiming these domestic stories that don’t get told very often; often female stories, stories of migration, suffering and war,” says Bellamy.
Bellamy wanted to bring the idea of Shabbat to a wider group of people, in the spirit of encouraging them to embrace our own families’ stories. Shabbat Dinner is the result.
“It’s very casual, atypical theatre,” Bellamy says, “sort of a performance but really just a dinner party with poetic elements and storytelling.”
Audiences are given a glass of wine as they enter the space, and on stage is a 12-seat table decorated with (mismatched) silverware and the candlesticks. The meal begins with the breaking of challah bread, followed by an entree of her Baba’s warm, nutritious beetroot borscht, a Russian rice and vegetable dish followed by her contemporary version of the honey cake.
Bellamy is quick to point out it is a welcoming, non-threatening environment that requires nothing more from the audience than to enjoy the food and take part in the singing, if they want to.
“People can decide if they want to get up or not. I hate participatory theatre that puts people on the spot, they’re simply at my dinner party hearing a story.”
She is joined on stage by fellow cast members Amy Hack (whose background is also Jewish) and Kirsty Marillier, who immigrated from South Africa aged 10. Both bring stories and songs from their own backgrounds.
As the evening progresses Bellamy encourages people to help her clear away and says audience members have stayed behind to share their own stories. “People are often quite emotional at the end, it reminds them of their own grandparents. We’re not very good at grief in Australian society, we have to deal with it or it will bite us in the arse. So the play gives them a chance to consider their own stories of survival, death, rituals and family.”
Shabbat Dinner is at Griffin Theatre’s SBW Stables Theatre from September 10 to 15.