Among the many writing credits of Sonia Levitin, a Writers’ Program instructor since 1994, the one that always stood out in her heart was her 1987 award-winning novel, The Return. The novel, inspired by the secret rescue mission of 8000 Ethiopian Jews in what came to be known as “Operation Moses,” is now the subject of Sonia’s new play at the Edgemar Center for the Arts. Return the Musical runs from June 5 – 29 and July 10 – 20 and is a feature event in Southern California’s Festival of New American Musicals through June.
Return integrates African rhythms and percussion instruments with modern hip-hop and rap styles and classical “big” Broadway show numbers. Twenty-two songs drive the drama, and a chorus of dancers brings the village scenes to life with African movement and vocalizations. Sonia wrote the book and lyrics and William Kevin Anderson wrote the music. The rescue mission that inspired Sonia’s original novel was the beginning of an effort that continues to this day. The drama itself is heroic, sometimes comedic, often heart-rending and in the end was, as was said of the novel by the Christian Science Monitor, “A triumph of the human spirit.”
Sonia took some time out from preparing for the show’s opening to speak with us about her new work.
The Return was inspired by the true story of “Operation Moses.” What was it about this incident inspired you to originally write the novel?
I was inspired to write the novel The Return when I read an LA Times article in March or April, 1985, about this amazing rescue operation. I was thrilled that these black Jews, destitute and persecuted, were saved. It made me think back to my own family members who perished in Nazi Germany, because the world didn’t listen or care enough. This time, I thought, there are people who care. So I wanted to meet the black Jews, to shake their hands, to share in this great triumph. I went to Israel just to see them, not thinking about a book at that time, but when I began to learn their stories I felt the very strong desire to write it. It seemed to me the story of the decade, if not of the century. I get that feeling–an actual chill down my spine, a great sense of urgency: I HAVE to write this story.
And what was it like to return to the novel after all these years?
Actually, I have never been away from this novel, so returning to it now was not an issue. For all these years I have supported and become friends with the founders of NACOEJ a relief agency for Ethiopian Jews still in Ethiopia and those who have already gone to Israel. I do a lot of speaking about this migration. The book is used in many schools. Having explored the situation in Ethiopia gave me the confidence to become involved in the problems of slavery and war in Sudan, so I have been involved in African concerns almost continually since 1985.
What was the most challenging part of adapting the play into a musical?
The most challenging part of writing the play was learning how to use dialogue and stage direction to carry the entire story. As a novelist, I sometimes rely on descriptions and inner monologue or the character’s thoughts and memories. In modern theater, this is impossible. A good deal must be conveyed by a glance, a sparse comment (no long monologues here) or by what is NOT said. As in any art form, the ‘”white spaces” are an important part of the drama. It was a personal struggle to learn how to use script software in place of the usual word documents; I had grown accustomed to the mechanics, and now I had to start learning all over again.
What has been the most rewarding part of working on Return?
The most rewarding part of this project is working in collaboration with highly talented, sensitive, artistic people. Donald McKayle, William Anderson and I understand what each of us is trying to do–and if we don’t understand, we do greatly respect each other for our separate abilities. But somehow we overlap and also see the work as a whole.
It is thrilling to work with people who really understand every nuance and metaphor. In watching Donald and Will direct the cast, I am privileged to see a live “sculpture” take form. The actors are the clay; we are the potters, plus the fact that each actor brings his or her own personality and special talent to the project, making it their own. Also very rewarding are the comments of the actors, who tell me how much they love this work and the meaning of the story. They are proud, they say, to be part of it. The cast has bonded incredibly. At the beginning and end of rehearsals there are hugs all around. Sometimes, although it is late at night and they have been working all day, the actors hang around for a while, enjoying the togetherness–and so do I.
As a seasoned author, did writing the book and lyrics for the play bring any new insight to your writing?
I was amazed and thrilled to discover that I absolutely love writing lyrics. For me, it’s an entirely new art form, and I approach it similarly to writing a short story or a novel. First I note down the ideas I’m trying to convey, the emotional and informational content of the song. Whose song is this? What are his/her feelings? How do they change throughout the song? What is the dominant message? I begin writing the lines, cognizant of the fact that I want it to rhyme, sometimes using slat rhyme, alliteration, all the techniques I learned in poetry class so long ago by my dear friend and mentor, Anna Marie Towner (now deceased.) Those were very valuable lessons. I find that the words seem to flow through me. I stay very relaxed while writing a song; it’s rather like dancing. You can’t do it if you are tense. I think the same is true for writing a novel or a story, and I have always stressed this with my students: let yourself play. Let your mind float. The material is there in your subconscious; just allow it to flow out.
Any parting advice for our students?
I would like to encourage students–and everyone–to take chances, have faith in yourself, in the process and the potential. Never think you’ve done it all. There’s always a new story and a new form. Some friends thought it was pretty odd and outrageous for me to shift from writing novels to doing a musical show at this point in my life. I only laughed. Like the song I wrote for the show, Hour Glass, sung by the village matriarch who is determined to go on this dangerous trek to Jerusalem, despite all odds, “There’s nothing that’s impossible! There’s nothing that’s too far.” To be a writer, to be any sort of artist, you have to believe that–and you have to want it almost more than anything else.
Sonia Levitin will be teaching Advanced Workshop in Writing for Children and Young Adults in the fall quarter. The fall quarter runs from September 20 – December 12. Make sure to check back to the Writers’ Program website on August 6 for more details and for a complete listing of all fall quarter courses!
Mae Respicio is the Program Representative for Creative Writing Onsite and Online.