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Pittsburgh Choreographer Explores Queer And Jewish Identities

Photo by Heather Mull
Courtesy of off the WALL productions
The cast of "Queer, Jewish: Dancing in Diaspora," rehearses.

Moriah Ella Mason grew up as a queer Jew in a conservative, Christian town in Westmoreland County. She felt, needless to say, isolated in Trafford -- and for a long time she simply denied her queerness.

"Queer, Jewish: Dancing in Diaspora": Thu., Aug. 8, through Aug. 18. Carnegie Stage, 25 W. Main St., Carnegie

As an adult artist, however, Mason found inspiration in places that some might find surprising: Jewish folklore and sacred texts, like the Torah. Her new dance work, “Queer, Jewish: Dancing in Diaspora,” explores the way Jewish and queer identities can intersect in such sources.

“There’s not one particular narrative but we’re weaving in a lot of autobiography, feminist reconsiderations of the Torah and of Jewish folklore, and also reinterpreting rituals to support the type of healing and future that we want,” she said.

Mason, an interdisciplinary artist based in Pittsburgh, has explored Jewish identity in her work before, as in her 2015 solo work “Funny, She Doesn’t Look Jewish.” She might be best known for “Sex Werque,” her 2017 dance piece delving into the several years she worked as a stripper.

For “Queer, Jewish,” Mason worked as part of a cast of five other artists, all of whom are Jewish, queer, or both: Olivia Devorah, Ru Emmons, Sarah Friedlander, Harry J. Hawkins IV, and Amelia Ruess. The 80-minute work incorporates dance and text, performed to a sound score primarily by locally based group slowdanger. The costumes blending the futuristic and the traditional are by Claire Steiner.

Credit Photo by Heather Mull / Courtesy of off the WALL productions
Courtesy of off the WALL productions
"Queer, Jewish" cast members pose.

Mason said the cast was inspired by a variety of sources – including the oeuvre of Barbra Streisand, whose fan base consists heavily of Jewish women and gay men. But mostly it looked at centuries old stories.

“That was a really exciting way to read ourselves into the past, to see these little hints and memorials that have been left and have survived through years and years of patriarchal culture,” she said.

One story the troupe interprets is the Old Testament tale of Jephthah, who because of a bargain with God must sacrifice his only child, a daughter. Mason said the unnamed daughter’s subsequent sojourn in the mountain with other maidens “often has been interpreted by lesbian and different feminist readers in our current time as reference to a sort of women’s separatist moment, to a space for lesbian sexuality. It’s just kind of winking at us from the text.”

Or take the ancient tale of the golem, a creature magically animated from clay, who in some tellings exists to protect the Jewish community.

“We considered how we ourselves can be golems, and how in the ways we speak our queerness into existence, and the ways that we play with and mold our gender presentation, and may even engage in hormone therapies or surgeries or all these different types of things, [so that we are] creating ourselves into protectors of ourselves and protectors of each other,” she said.

Mason said the Jewish community, by and large, is more open to queerness than other religions might be. (Last year, she said, she attended Queer Talmud Camp.)

“Religion and culture is always intimately tied with sexuality. And there is a lot that Jewish tradition asks us to think about in terms of how we treat each other, and how we treat each other in romantic relationships, and in friendships, and in community, and the role that sexuality plays within that,” she said. “There’s so much sex in the bible. So I think it’s disingenuous to act like talking about sexuality or sexual identity should be separate from conversations about religion or ethnicity.”

“Queer, Jewish” receives eight performances over two weeks starting Thursday. The show is produced with support from off the WALL productions, which also operates Carnegie Stage, the show’s venue. Additional support was provided by the Heinz Small Arts Initiative.

Ticket information is here.

Bill is a long-time Pittsburgh-based journalist specializing in the arts and the environment. Previous to working at WESA, he spent 21 years at the weekly Pittsburgh City Paper, the last 14 as Arts & Entertainment editor. He is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and in 30-plus years as a journalist has freelanced for publications including In Pittsburgh, The Nation, E: The Environmental Magazine, American Theatre, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Bill has earned numerous Golden Quill awards from the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania. He lives in the neighborhood of Manchester, and he once milked a goat. Email: