Bella: The Colour of Love, a play inspired by the life of Bella Chagall, the writer and muse for her famous husband artist Marc Chagall, stars multi-award winning actor and singer Theresa Tova.
“Bella Chagall wrote two lovely narratives as a young girl living in the same city as [Marc] Chagall in Vitebsk in Russia,” Tova says. “They both came from the chassidic influences of their parents and they were still steeped in that tradition. When Jewry was being decimated by Hitler, she went back and wrote these amazing storybooks in her mother tongue…and she hadn’t spoken Yiddish in years.”
Tova first read one of her books in English and wasn’t enthralled by it. Then, while in New York, she found a copy in Yiddish which was her first language. The actress fell in love with Bella’s voice, which she feels paints with words the way Chagall paints his canvass.
“She wrote and he painted the same stories and that fascinated me,” says Tova. “Bella has a chapter in her book called “The Birthday,” about the first night that they go ‘flying,’ obviously code for consummating their love affair. What she describes is exactly what he’s painted in that iconic picture called The Birthday. It is so beautiful… you get this back story on his paintings, which makes you understand why he said, ‘I didn’t paint surrealism and fantasy, I painted reality,’ you see he was painting falling in love with her and you get that from her writing too.
“What I am most proud of is that we are giving voice to a woman artist who lived in the shadow of her man. It is time that her jewels, her talent was recognized.”
Tova co-wrote the play with her friend Mary Kerr, an award-winning set, costume and event designer. She knew Kerr had done her university thesis on Chagall and she is often likened to Chagall because of her fantastical sets. Their idea was first commissioned by the Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts in 2011.
Since then the play has been retooled. This production by the Harold Green Jewish Theatre Company is the first full-theatrical run with new costumes, painting and songs.
The show is underscored with original music composed and played by Matt Herskowitz, with surrealistic movement choreographed by Danny Grossman and set against the backdrop of larger-than-life projections of Chagall’s paintings curated by Kerr.
“Like Chagall, I consider myself a universal artist, but I have to say that some of my greatest success has been when I have delved into Jewish subjects be it the great anarchist Emma Goldman in Ragtime or in my mother’s story Still the Night,” Tova says. “I am a cultural Jew, my grandparents were Orthodox so I am not unfamiliar with that world. I don’t do work in my creative field because it’s Jewish, I am not political that way, I do it because it is a story I understand and need to tell. I have more invested in myself as an artist than to do it just because it’s Jewish, but I will use Jewish themes and make them the best art they can be.”
HGJTC’s Bella: The Colour of Love runs at the Studio Theatre in the Toronto Centre for the Arts from Oct. 15 – Nov. 2, 2014, at 8 p.m. www.hgjewishtheatre.com.