MONTREAL – Alexis Diamond grew up hearing stories of her “socialist relatives who settled on the Main,” having fled the pogroms of Latvia.
She was struck by how her maternal great-grandmother had evaded Old Country marauders. Whenever a threat presented itself, she and her family hid in holes dug by her father into the mountainside.
It came as a shock to this same great-grandmother that her chosen home in Montreal also held its dangers for Jews.
Diamond decided to recreate the turbulence of Montreal in 1942 in her newly completed play Strange Land. The script recently received a public reading at Playwrights Workshop Montreal Studio (PWM) with a view to attracting producers.
An earlier version that she seeded while studying playwriting at Concordia University already garnered best play award in the 2008 Canadian Jewish Playwriting Competition.
“It took a long time to write Strange Land, because writing historical works is extremely hard,” says Diamond. “Everything you take for granted about contemporary times requires research into each thread of existence and the characters’ ways of being in their world.”
The character that is loosely based on her great-grandmother is recently widowed and carrying on the operation of her husband’s bookstore.
She must also deal with her daughters, one a socialist who by illegal pamphleteering wants to eradicate the hateful anti-Semitism she has encountered both in the anglophone and francophone communities, and a younger daughter working in a factory who wants her own life away from what she perceives as the tyranny of home.
“Another level I bring into the play is the divide between the Westmount Jews who are religious and English-speaking, like my dad’s side of the family that came in the 1880s and established themselves as business owners, and the Yiddish-speaking socialist Jews who are [religiously] non-practising, working class and lived on the Main. The Jewish workers who were trying to organize unions were fighting against Jewish factory owners,” she says.
Diamond drew on another episode in Montreal Jewish history for her one-act play Aberdeen 1913 about the strike led by five elementary school students in protest of their teacher’s anti-Semitic remarks.
Since her first play Treehouse, which played the Montreal Fringe Festival in 1997, she has expanded her writing career into the greater Canadian panorama and within the realm of musicals and opera, as well as plays.
She appreciates that all of them have been workshopped and dramaturged at PWM, where artistic director Emma Tibaldo has become her sounding board.
“I’m now a mid-career artist, but when I’m working with the right people, I still feel like a kid with crayons, that anything is possible,” she says.
Diamond’s opera for young audiences, Get Stuffed!, about healthy eating is on DVD in the collection of every school library in Ontario after having played live to more than 15,000 students. Her one-act opera The Perfect Screw, about mass production versus craftsmanship, is slated for recording and will be part of the Hamilton Orchestra’s cabaret of new opera on May 27.
Ever since Diamond took part in a translation unit at PWM with Maureen Labonté, she’s also entered the realm of translation. Cirque du Soleil’s Toruk –The First Flight, inspired by James Cameron’s Avatar, is touring the United States with her English translation of the narration.
She’s currently tackling the translation of Pascal Brullemans’ play Vipérine (Viperette in English), funded by a Canada Council grant.
Many more projects are percolating for Diamond. She’s off to Finland next fall for a two-month writers’ residency to work on the sequel to Strange Land, tentatively titled The White Hotel about the Mount Sinai sanatorium and the “medical control of uncontrollable things like tuberculosis. Again, it’s based on family stories,” says Diamond.
“I’m the happiest I’ve been in my creative life. It’s a very rich time.”