‘Coming Out’ as a Russian Immigrant

(Photo by Jennifer Lehman for Voices of NY)

(Photo by Jennifer Lehman for Voices of NY)

In her new one-woman show “My Stubborn Tongue,” actress and writer Anna Fishbeyn tells the story of how she reconciled with her Russian-Jewish identity after years of passing as an American.

“The arc of the story is about me coming to terms with basically coming out as an immigrant,” said Fishbeyn.

The show opens August 6 at the New Ohio Theatre in New York’s West Village.

At age 9, Fishbeyn immigrated with her family to the United States – none of them knowing a word of English.

“Thank God for American slapstick,” said Fishbeyn, recalling her family watching “Three’s Company.” “At least you knew when they were falling, or when Jack would get like one leg stuck somewhere.”

It’s not just the isolation of language that makes immigration difficult, Fishbeyn said.

“You are completely displaced in a kind of unbelievable way. Everything you believed until this point, everything you thought until this point is just altered. And you don’t know who you are.”

Fishbeyn, who is today a New Yorker, attended an English and Hebrew intensive for a year at an Orthodox Jewish school in Chicago after she first arrived in the U.S. (“We were learning about what it meant to be Jewish because we had no idea who we were,” she explained).

After a year, Fishbeyn was fluent in English, with the added benefit of having kicked her accent, something not all her peers could boast.

She wore American clothes, listened to American music and studied American body language. She changed her name to Annie on her passport so she wouldn’t have to pronounce Anna and get questions about her origins.

“People on the streets told us to go home and called us KGB spies. It was not fun to be Russian. It was not fun to say, ‘Oh hi, I’m Russian.’ The minute you uttered that all kinds of crazy thoughts went into the person’s mind.”

“My Stubborn Tongue” found its start in a poem entitled “What’s the point?” that she wrote after her grandmother died in 2011. Her grandmother, who lived through Stalin’s crippling Collectivization period and watched a parent starve to death, at the end of her life often questioned the reason for everything – having to struggle in Russia, having to struggle in the U.S., and finally, having to suffer at the end of one’s life.

She submitted the piece to the Emerging Artists Theatre in New York for its One Man Talking festival where she worked with director Scott Klavan, who helped her to make it active with sound and movement, Fishbeyn said.

Following the performance at EAT last March, some audience members, namely Russian immigrants, came up to Fishbeyn weeping, while others wrote her letters, saying they had repressed many of the memories of their own journeys, and thanked her for bringing them to the stage.

Klavan, also an actor and a writer, connected with the material because he teaches therapeutic drama classes in different parts of the city, including Brighton Beach, where many of his students are Russian immigrants or of Russian descent.

(Photo by Jennifer Lehman for Voices for NY)

(Photo by Jennifer Lehman for Voices for NY)

Working on the show led Fishbeyn to recall many, often hilarious, family stories that Klavan encouraged her to include in the piece. Fishbeyn went to her parents and picked their brains, double-checking what she remembered from childhood and choosing their funniest stories that would fit the stage.

Klavan, who is a member writer and actor at Emerging Artists Theater, but also curates one-person shows for their festivals, felt Fishbeyn’s piece had potential to become something bigger. The latest version that will be staged at the New Ohio Theatre in the West Village runs about 90 minutes.

“I felt differently about it than I have about anything else because it’s extraordinarily personal,” Fishbeyn said.

Her last show, “Sex in Mommyville,” about balancing the desire for sex with motherhood and other demands on women, had kernels of autobiography – including the fact that the heroine’s Russian parents live just upstairs.

In real life, Fishbeyn’s parents do live in the same apartment building – the result of a familial ultimatum. Her husband and her parents wanted her to have a second child. For Fishbeyn, the only way she could do that and continue to perform was to hire a nanny. For her parents, having a nanny take care of the children was unthinkable – how could a stranger possibly take care of the children? The solution: Fishbeyn made her parents promise to move to New York from Chicago.

So, they uprooted themselves. This sacrifice, she said, is indicative of the closeness of Russian immigrant families and what they’ve been through together.

“In some sense I’m doing this play for them. It’s not just for my grandmother, it’s for my mom and my dad and my aunt because I feel so indebted to them.”

“My Stubborn Tongue” consists entirely of her memories and her family’s memories.

“Some of the stories seem so crazy you can’t believe it’s true,” Fishbeyn said. “People will say, ‘is that really true?’ Yes. It’s even worse in life.”

Ginny Louloudes, the executive director at the Alliance of Resident Theatres in New York, met Fishbeyn when she was looking for a donor to invest in one of her shows and the two hit it off.

Louloudes, a second-generation Greek immigrant, said one of the scenes in “My Stubborn Tongue” brought back memories of being a young girl and people yelling at her grandfather because he couldn’t speak English.

“Part of what makes Anna so special is that she remembers fleeing Russia and remembers her childhood in Russia. She remembers being the ‘other’ in Russia, and coming to the United States and being the ‘other,’” Louloudes said.

“I would love for Russian immigrants and Russian Jews to come see the show,” Fishbeyn said. “But I wrote the show for Americans. I wrote the show for people who have no idea what it’s like to be an immigrant.”

My Stubborn Tongue”  will run from August 6 through August 24 at the New Ohio Theatre at 154 Christopher St., Suite 1E.

Jennifer Lehman is a multimedia journalist and a student at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. Follow her on Twitter

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