The swastika spray-painted on the South Philadelphia storefront the night Donald Trump was elected president screamed out to Jennifer Blaine.
So, the woman who’s made her mark primarily in comedy for the past 25 years — she was one of the original participants at the 1997 Philadelphia Fringe Festival — knew she needed to make a statement.
That’s why she wrote the musical “Mannequin.”
“It was all inspired by the 2016 election when a store in Philly was defaced with a swastika,” she explained about the evolution of a production that premiered on Zoom during the height of the pandemic in 2020 before being reprised for FringeArts last month.
“It was a defunct fur store, Meglio’s, at Broad and Wharton, which had an iconic sign.
“It was defaced that night, which really haunted me because I was so alarmed by the normalization of antisemitism. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to make this musical.”
Growing up in Brooklyn’s Flatbush section, Blaine developed an appreciation for her heritage. But then, as now, she’s at a loss to understand what could prompt such evil.
While she’s spent most of her career performing in one-woman shows for FringeArts as well as other theater companies, she felt compelled to write “Mannequin.” She describes it as a dramedy incorporating humor into a serious topic.
It’s the story of an elderly Jewish woman who owns a fur store filled with life-size dummies whose life is relived back and forth through time as seen through the eyes of the 14 mannequins Blaine musically portrays. Much of the theme is seeing how she and a teenager new to the city that the old woman befriends must deal with the kind of Charlottesville “Jews must not replace us” kind of antisemitism prevalent today.
While she’s proud of “Mannequin,” it’s quite a departure from what’s been her trademark kind of performance.
“My craft has been to make solo shows my entire career,” said Blaine, who, before moving to Philadelphia in 1977, was part of a post-college workshop that met regularly at Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward’s Connecticut home. “I’ve probably made around 18 shows now. My tradition has been to do basically a whole array of characters. I’d stand up as myself and then morph into becoming other people. They’re original characters mostly.
“They’re more like arch types. Like an elderly Jewish woman named Ruth who tells dirty jokes. Or an unintelligible girl named Dixie who, because she’s hard to understand, the audience tries to translate what she’s saying, which lends itself to audience participation. Or Belle, the body piercer, who’s trying to make sense of the world we’re living with. … That’s been a constant in my work. I really like being funny about difficult issues.”
At the same time, she’s dead serious about trying to help others cope.
“Jennifer’s soul is a Jewish soul,” said her friend and fellow comedic actress Sharon Geller, who’s worked alongside her on several occasions over the years. “She knows how to connect with people on their level. There are not a lot of people in this business as trustworthy, kind and giving, which is not something to be taken lightly.”
Blaine thanks her maternal grandfather, Louis Bendis, for giving her the itch to perform and give back to the community.
“He spoke to me in Yiddish, and we’d go to plays together,” said Blaine, who lives with husband Michael Sussman and 16-year-old daughter, Lily, in Center City. “He was a great storyteller.
“That inspired me. My family is filled with writers. My uncle, Michael Blaine, was a novelist. My 90-year-old father, Ed, writes short stories and poetry. My Mom, Marge, wrote two children’s books and, before that, wrote for Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. So, being a writer as a life practice is something I saw was possible, even normal. Ever since I was a little girl, I wanted to be on stage telling stories.”
But that’s not all. Her words go far beyond the stage or Zoom link.
She’s taught for years, serving from 2013 to 2018 as the resident theater arts director at the Kimmel Center’s Showstoppers program, where students from across the region came together to perform. And as a member of the American Counseling Association, she’s a transformational coach who helps people deal with whatever issues are on their minds.
“The reason I’m here is to inspire people to be fulfilled creatively,” said Blaine, whose resume includes being the opening act for comedians George Carlin and Joe Piscopo and sharing the stage with Chris Rock. “We need our aliveness in creativity in order to have purpose. Because things are so hard, we need it now more than ever.” T
Jon Marks is a Philadelphia-area freelance writer.