March 5, 2001

'Soul Sisters' Showcases Racial, Gender Tensions

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The musical “Soul Sisters” needed only a cast of three to showcase gender and racial tensions. The performance elicited a standing ovation from a packed Barnes Hall on Thursday night.

Sponsored by various Cornell organizations, including Cornell Hillel, Cornell Women’s Resource Center and Cornell United Religious Work, “Soul Sisters” provided the “perfect opportunity for people to explore the issues of gender, race, ethnicity and religion,” said Candace Rypisi, director of Cornell Women’s Resource Center.

“Soul Sisters,” co-authored by Joanne Koch ’61 and Sarah Blacher Cohen, has been performed at 27 universities since its first production in 1997. The musical incorporates performances of African, Yiddish and Hebrew folk songs.

The story follows two singers who participated in the Civil Rights Movement. One singer is African-American. The other is Jewish-American and built her fame on performing African folk songs before embracing the Yiddish songs of her own heritage.

After rediscovering their cultural roots through personal and professional tragedies, the singers work together in the Civil Rights Movement and discover similarities in their personal tragedies and struggles.

These singers’ interaction with each other highlights barriers created by people who felt the Civil Rights Movement should include less involvement from Jewish people.

“Let white people go! We don’t want white people singing our songs!” exclaimed one leader of the Civil Rights Movement in one of many clips from recordings of past speeches.

These provocative quotations, in addition to the story line, introduce new ideas for the audience to consider.

“The play brings groups together … it admits that some of us are not being totally honest with each other,” Koch said.

“People [in the audience] tend to sit with people like themselves, but by the end of the show there’s a feeling of the walls breaking down and a willingness to talk and be open about things,” she added.

After the musical ended, Koch led a discussion with the audience, encouraging people to discuss their racial and ethnic tensions.

“In the 1990’s there was a feeling of separation; we couldn’t have a dialogue but only had a politically correct situation where we sat with our hands folded,” Koch said.

“If there’s resentment, let it come out in a dialogue. Be open, reach out, and have more interaction,” she said.

After the musical, some students expressed their feelings about the relationship between different groups.

“It’s important to show that Jews were persecuted due to religion, but black people were persecuted for the color of their skin” Sika Bediako ’04 said.

“I felt there was not enough emphasis in the play on the fact that [the struggles of African-Americans and of Jewish people] were not as similar as it seems on the outside,” she said.

Other students felt the play showed how people have historically been able to bond together.

“The play shows that problems of Jewish and African-American people were very similar,” Denise Kees ’03 said, noting that the similarities in these groups were more powerful than their differences.

Archived article by Peter Lin