Primrose Madayag Knazan, a playwright based in Winnipeg, is ecstatic. Her deeply personal and poignant award-winning play Precipice will be read publicly for the first time on May 18.
As the winner of the 2021 Canadian Jewish Playwriting Competition, The Winnipeg Jewish Theatre and The Harold Green Jewish Theatre will present a Between Stages public virtual staged reading of the play.
Precipice follows Sharrah’s conversion to Judaism, a journey that takes her from her future in-laws’ seder table to a synagogue in the Philippines. Caught between her Filipino mother’s expectations and her brother’s estrangement from the family, she wonders if she’s ready to walk the path of the Torah.
Knazan has written numerous plays performed at the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre, Winnipeg Fringe Festival, and Sarasvati Production’s FemFest. Her plays Shades of Brown and Two Browns Don’t Make a White have been published by Scirocco Drama and Playwright’s Canada Press. Her novel, Lessons in Fusion, was published by Great Plains Publications.
Safe to say, this Winnipeg writer isn’t a stranger to her work being recognized, but that doesn’t mean it makes it any less special when receiving first place in a playwriting competition.
I spoke with Knazan about the inspiration behind the play, her relationship with Jewish and Filipino culture, and what this win means for her.
Maybe we can start by learning about why you decided to convert to Judaism?
My parents are Filipino and I grew up Catholic but left the church when I was a teenager. I began dating my husband in my late teens and when I was around 20 years old it started getting serious but I wasn’t sure about converting to Judaism. It was important for him and his family to marry Jewish and have Jewish children. For me, I wanted to know that if you’re going to propose it has to be for me, and not because I’m going to convert. I wouldn’t even talk about it. We then spent some time apart and got back together. He did propose and then I started to think about converting. I met with my husband’s rabbi who was such an inspiration to me. I found the rabbi so compelling. I don’t think I would have converted if it wasn’t for him. He told me he lived in the Philippines for a time and how they [the congregation] met with revolutionaries from the People Power Revolution (who overthrew President Marcos) to discuss peaceful protest.
Then, I began going to conversion classes. One of the things I love about Judaism is the ability to shape your spirituality. I didn’t have that at all in Catholicism. There was a flexibility and openness to dialogue that I had never seen in religion before.
Was this the moment that inspired your play?
Well, for the last conversion class we had to do a presentation. I was already a playwright so I wrote a little piece about my decision to convert. As the play developed over the years and I kept revisiting it I found that on the surface the play is about a woman converting but really it’s my love letter to Judaism and ceremony, and the whole idea that you can shape your spiritual experience.
The main character Sharrah shows the parts of Judaism that appeal to her after feeling abandoned by Catholicism. The play has a scene at a seder dinner which is all about symbolism and I originally wrote, it’s not in the play now, but I wrote, “when I heard the prayer for the candles sung for the first time these women with their eyes hooded, it hit me that this is a melody that had been sung for thousands of years even before year zero.” That’s the sentiment of the play: her being in awe of the spirituality that has pervaded through the generations, specifically through the repetition of ceremony. I fell in love with that idea and incorporated other ceremonies like Sharrah cooking with her mother, which is repeated several times in the play, to show how they bond and how food plays an integral role in Jewish and Filipino culture. Once I started to hold onto this concept, I knew it was a solid play.
How did the play evolve from that initial presentation in your conversion class to the version you submitted for the competition?
In 2010, I wrote the first three scenes of my conversion experience, then put it away. Fast forward to 2020, I was approached to write a new play for the Festival of New Works that May. I wasn’t sure because I had a new job, kids . . . I was busy. But then I realized I had a play about my conversion experience and I did some rewrites and got the first five scenes in March 2020. Then the pandemic came and the festival was sadly cancelled. In September 2020, I read about the So Nu?—a festival of new Canadian Jewish plays at The Winnipeg Jewish Theatre. They loved what I wrote. They were specifically looking for plays that centred on the intersection of culture and Judaism. Later, I submitted it to the Canadian Jewish Playwriting Competition.
When writing the play, did you learn anything new about your relationship to Judaism?
I did, because it brought up things I’d always felt but could never put into words. I remember that our instructor during the conversion process said, “Judaism is about being the Torah,” and I wrote down the words, “I am the Torah” meaning: I am what I do. If I want to be this kind of Jew then that’s what I’ll be. That’s what the entire play is about. I always have to explore that idea and put it into concrete terms. Writing this play during the pandemic too—when we couldn’t go to services in-person or be with our Jewish community—made me feel more connected to Judaism.
How does the play explore the intersection of your Filipino and Jewish culture?
In the play, I got to explore the history of the Jewish community in the Philippines. There was a group of Jews who went to the Philippines because so few countries accepted Jewish refugees. This was prior to WWII so in the 1930s up to 1941. That connection made me so happy because I can share this remarkable history with people.
When you found out you won the competition for Precipice, how did it feel? Where were you? Who were you with?
My son was in the ER actually, he woke up one day with a limp and the second day he couldn’t walk. Luckily it wasn’t anything that serious, but we found out he had a virus in his hip. We were in the ER for three days, 12 hours each day. We got a bunch of tests done and they concluded it was a virus. So I got the email saying I got first place and I kept thinking, this is so great, then looking at my son and thinking, but this is so terrible! It was such a bright light on such a terrible day.
I’m so sorry! What timing…
I know. He was in a wheelchair for a few weeks but he’s doing a lot better now.
I’m so glad he’s doing better. The last thing I wanted to know is, what do you hope audiences take away from the play?
I hope they understand it. I would say 90 per cent of my plays have a disjointed timeline. I like to jump around all over the place, it’s just the way my brain works. We’re incorporating a lot of multimedia in it, as well as Hebrew and Filipino prayers. I want to make sure the audience is still engaged, but I’m not writing this for a Jewish or Filipino audience. I wrote it so anyone who watches gets a piece of Jewish and Filipino culture. I’m hoping this play will bring you to incredible highs and incredible lows. There were parts of the play when writing it, where I was bawling because the emotions pulled at me so hard. I hope it does that for audiences too.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Header image design by Clarrie Feinstein.
Clarrie Feinstein is a journalist based in Toronto where she is currently a reporter for Toronto Star. She previously was a reporter for Metroland Media where she covered education in Peel Region. Her other work can be seen in Daily Hive, Business Insider, Salon, and Bedford + Bowery. Clarrie earned her M.A. in journalism from New York University.