Commentary on the play "Polish Joke"

"a vehicle for his own [David Ives'] self-hatred as a Polish-American"

Dear Friends,
attached is the letter I have written regarding the West Hartford Park Road Playhouse's recent staging of [the play] "Polish Joke." Just wanted to share it with you.
Marek Czarnecki

April 4, 2005

To Whom It May Concern,

The passing of John Paul II leaves a deep hole in the hearts of our Polish American community, or "Polonia" here in Connecticut. In 1998, as a participant of a discussion on the topic of being raised Polish-American on the Faith Middletown Show, Professor Stanislaw Blejwas, the founder of the Endowed Chair of Polish Studies at Central Connecticut State University proudly told the Connecticut listeners of WNPR that the election of a Polish Pope had "finally killed the Polish joke for once and for all."

It was especially painful to remember Professor Blejwas' message while on this past Sunday sitting through the West Hartford Park Road Playhouse's closing production of "Polish Joke" by playwright David Ives. As a member of the Polish Cultural Club of Greater Hartford, I feel especially committed to supporting all programs that support our local Polonia and was looking forward to the play. I was surprised the production was not advertised in our local Polish newspapers, radio and TV programs, or informal networks. I understand why now. I was completely unprepared for the level of ridicule and defamation in this production. When I left the theater, I approached a member of the board of directors to voice my complaint, and she retorted "obviously you didn't get it!"

No, I do not get Polish jokes. Nor can I understand any circumstance, artistic, social, or political where they should be tolerated or repeated. To have these as part of a comedy was even more surreal, like creating a work of art around a swastika or putting on minstrel show. Part of this is the fault of the playwright, David Ives, born David Roszkowski, and now writing under an Irish pen name. The depiction of Polish Americans in the play was a vehicle for his own self-hatred as a Polish-American and lack of connection to his own deep patrimony, which is used only as an occasion for ridicule. By his own admission, Ives says he has never visited Poland, which makes the ten minutes of backhanded praise for Poland (out of the play's two hour duration) sound empty and false, as if it were grafted from a grammar school geography book, and can hardly justify or resolve the play's deeper problems.

From the first scene, Poles are caricatured as fat, dirty working class drunks, sometimes crawling out of pipes with toilet plungers, at other times pulling shiny, greasy kielbasas out of their pockets. The Polish psyche is repeatedly called one of "disappointment, discouragement, and despair." While the actor Brian Morrell was able to very clearly enunciate Polish expletives, the same actor (as was true of the rest of the cast) was unable to correctly pronounce the name of the "Kosciuszko," even while playing the part of great Polish-American patriot himself as part of a "dream sequence." This helped me understand that the priorities of the playwright and cast was not one of honor but explicit ridicule. I felt like I was watching a car crash I couldn't stop; every character is stereotyped into a horrific buffoon.

All the Polish characters in the play are working class: plumbers, garbage men, factory workers. I am proud to say I come from Polish immigrant parents who worked in Connecticut's factories all their lives. We were brought up to know there is no shame in any kind of work, that everything was honorable. It is true, we clean your houses, fix your pipes, sweep your streets, but we are also professors, the secretary of state, and the Pope. In America, we were always aware of our status as underlings, but knew inside we were "kings and saints" as a popular Polish scouting song repeats. My mother survived deportation to slave labor work camps in Siberia, and my father escaped from a Nazi prisoner of war camp to rejoin his army platoon. Neither they, nor any of the other Polish Americans I know, can be painted as people of "disappointment, discouragement or despair."

This was a poor choice to stage as a play, and to see it the day after the Pontiff's death was especially heartbreaking and inexcusable. How could many of the actors, school teachers themselves in the Connecticut school system, participate in a play that does nothing to further tolerance and diversity? The depiction of other ethnicities in the play was just as ugly. This was no comedy.

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