There is more than a trace of irony in Dan Fishback’s stint as artist in residence at the University of Pennsylvania’s Kelly Writers House. Fishback is a 31-year-old New York-based playwright/ musician/activist best known for works that combine the issues and history of gay and Jewish life, like the 2012 musical, The Material World. The play features Fishback’s socialist grandmother, Gittel, at the turn of the last century, as well as Madonna and Britney Spears’ imagined efforts at tapping into the power of Kabbalah in this one. He is also an alumnus of the university whose undergraduate years were not always easy ones, especially in his dealings with the Penn Jewish community.
“I had a very contentious relationship with the Jewish community at Penn,” recalls Fishback. “I had a weekly column in the campus newspaper, and I was very critical of the Israeli government at the time. Penn’s Jewish student body was much more right wing than I was used to — if I walked into an elevator and there was somebody in there with a kipah on, I was afraid they would start screaming at me — because they always would. And I got horrible hate mail like, ‘I hope you go to an Arab country and you get lynched.’ ”
That experience, plus his often futile efforts to get the student body to rally against the war in Iraq — he found that antiwar protests were no competition for brunch reservations — explain why he says, “My undergrad years were not happy.”
Ten years later, Fishback is all smiles when talking about his current stint as a Penn ArtsEdge resident. He works as a mentor with the students at Kelly Writers House, the hub for campus writers. And they work with him on his latest effort — turning his 2011 one-man play, thirtynothing, which takes an unsparing look at the three decades of the AIDS crisis, into a full-length book. “I felt there was so much more to say” on the topic, “so I applied for the residency here,” he explains. As part of his tenure, Fishback will be performing thirtynothing in March at the Rotunda in University City, one of a series of live performances he is involved with, including the Feb. 20 show, Round Up Holler Girl, which features readings by him and New York performance artists Max Steele and Erin Markey.
If it seems like Fishback is an activist in playwright’s clothes, he comes by it honestly. His great-grandfather was a socialist revolutionary in Tsarist Russia who escaped to the Bronx from a Siberian incarceration. His grandmother, Gittel, and her sisters were part of the Young Socialist League. And, after spending the 1960s and 1970s in the civil rights and antiwar movements, Fishback says, his father has become a gay rights activist (as has his mother), including successfully advocating for same-sex marriage in Fishback’s home state of Maryland.
“It’s funny,” he says, “because marriage isn’t a big concern of mine. From a radical queer perspective, I’m very critical of the institution of marriage and why it’s such a priority in the gay community. Most people would be thrilled to have their family on their side like that, but we just get into fights about whether gay marriage should be a priority.”
Just as growing up in an activist environment prepared him to advocate for his beliefs, Fishback says, being raised in a Jewish household prepared him for life as a gay man, a phenomenon he says is not limited to just his experience. “A lot of queer Jews say something to the effect of, ‘Being Jewish prepared us for being queer,’ ” he says. “In my mind, being queer and being Jewish are almost the same thing. I find it hard to differentiate between the two. They are both ways that I am apart from mainstream society, and they are both part of the way I am part of mainstream society.” For him, being Jewish makes coming out easier because “it makes us less afraid of being ‘normal.’ We already take pride in not being normal, in not celebrating Christmas, for example. It makes it easier to say, ‘This part of me is different, too, and that makes me special.’ ”
Fishback constantly questions if he is doing enough to effect change by focusing on the theater. “My perspective as an artist is formed by the impulse to make things better, and it is very difficult to dedicate myself to a project unless I think it is going to make a difference in the world,” he explains. “I think my work is haunted by that anxiety.” l
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