Daughter of the Wicked is Shanit Keter Schwartz’s story. This solo piece, written and performed by Schwartz, follows her journey to her homeland in Israel as she searches for her sister who disappeared in the Yemenite Missing Children Affair. Daughter of the Wicked premiered in Los Angeles in 2022 and will be presented by Lions Bay Productions at New York City Center with a run from April 15 to May 15. It features a soundscape with Yemenite in drums and flutes by composer Lilo Fedida as well as cello compositions by Oscar Nominee and Grammy Award winner James Newton Howard.
Liba Vaynberg interviewed Schwartz about her life and process creating this play.
Tell us about yourself and your journey to becoming an artist?
I left Israel when I was 18, and in Israel, in the ‘50s, you couldn’t really say to your parents, ‘I want to be an actor!’ You had to be a nurse or a teacher or work the farm. I left to London and then New York where I did many plays—it was the actor’s life from play to play, and no money. Even though I did 22 plays in New York, Hollywood was calling [to] me. I arrived in LA and as a matter of fact, [talent agency] William Morris Endeavor saw me in a play and brought me to LA. The whole theme of my play is about luck. What is luck? Chance, a force that can change one’s life in a matter of seconds. It’s all a matter of good fortune and misfortune, and I have been extremely fortunate, and I am grateful. I arrive in LA and do TV movies and meet my husband, the highlight of my stay, and we had two children and built an amazing life.
And then… my brain, the artistic brain, diminished or disappeared because I was very busy accumulating, accumulating homes, art, travel, raising my daughters. While raising my daughters, I decided to go into the business side of the business: producing. Even though I was in the business, it wasn’t the same as creating a project or performing on stage. I produced for 15, 20 years and I decided when my kids left home, I must go back to my creative side.
How did you return to the artistic side?
I thought how will I go back? How will I be an artist again? Haven’t been onstage in 40 years, a lifetime! I thought I will write for myself a play about my journey and that’s the only way I will go back to stage. I want to go back to my roots which I denied, all these years, because I was embarrassed by them. I wanted to go back to my past and forgive it, accept it, and embrace it. I wrote this play—it’s a mirror of looking into the past and forgiving it. And the amazing part is, I go back to the stage is… where do I go back? It’s a full circle, not only that I go back to my roots, but back to New York City Center! My first play ever was there! Berkeley Square with Christopher Reeve.
Tell us about your past. What are you holding a mirror up to?
When I was growing up in Israel in the 1950s, I was born in a hut with nothing, a couple of mattresses on the floor, and no electricity. No roads, just cobbled streets, and our toilet was outside: a hole in the dirt. I say in Daughter of The Wicked: “I had to skip through a minefield of poo to reach [the toilet]. And no one can reach it in time!” We didn’t have anything, but my childhood was magical because it was in nature. We lived in huts, but we were surrounded by eucalyptus trees, and we picked blackberries and stole oranges. Even today, I remember the smell of the fresh scented leaves.
We didn’t have a lot of food—it was a period of austerity in Israel. It was the beginning of the country where everybody had to chip in and do their part to build a new nation. My young life was hard, but what was hard for me was that we were different: [we were] Yemenites, dark, and dark complexion was [considered] inferior. I was different and bullied for that. That was what I couldn’t accept, and maybe that was the reason I left. I wanted something else. I wanted to be appreciated and celebrated and loved for who I am. When I arrived in London and then New York, the Jews loved me! I had the best seat at every dinner table—they all wanted to find me a nice Jewish boy.
What was it like to be Yemenite in Israel?
I was one of 6 children. When my twin siblings were born, my father went to the hospital to pick them up but he returned only with [a little boy] David. They told him that the little girl Sarah was sick and [requested] that he come back the following day. When he came back, they told him that she had died. He didn’t question this. He didn’t ask to see a death certificate. He did not demand to see her body. He did not think to bury her and give her funeral rights. He took what they told him as the truth not suspecting that they could deceive him…
In those days, the Yemenites and Sephardic Jews were seen as different because they were not seen as equal to the Ashkenazi Jews, who were sophisticated and educated. The Yemenites were the rabbis and [deeply] learned from the Torah, but not in the modern [ways the] the Ashkenazis were. Yemenites were seen as primitive or inferior. I wanted to be seen as equal to the Ashkenazi kids but they had a lot of hate towards me. They called me “schvartze” which means black. Ironically, I end up marrying an Ashkenazi named Schwartz!
After the huts, we moved into the projects—people came from all over the world to the projects: Yemen, Egypt, Iran, Romania, Poland, Morocco, Germany… they came in droves! It was so crowded, and the neighborhood was dangerous. Full of crime. It’s no longer like this—Israel now is beautiful and developed, but it was hard then cause the country had to assimilate so many people at once. You have to see both sides. I tell the story with love. I don’t tell the story with resentment.
What does it mean to you to be a Jewish woman?
I raised [both] my children Jewish—I gave birth to my older one and adopted my second one. Both of them I raised with all the holidays, [even though we] live far away from Israel. In Israel, Judaism is all around you — on the Sabbath, everything is closed and the elevators don’t work at the hotel and stop at every floor. Here, you have to keep the Jewish roots. I wanted my kids to have Jewish roots.
I light Shabbat candles on Friday night and I get messages from my rabbi at Chabad—he texts me all the holidays and reminds me what to do and what. I must admit I don’t go to synagogue as much as I did when the kids were small but I still go on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. I only do the big holidays now. I used to do all the holidays when the kids were small.
Are you spiritual?
I’m a very spiritual person, and I think I’ve inherited it from my father, a cabalistic rabbi. He wrote the book I refer to the play and I show his cabalistic paragraphs that I show on the screens. I was raised on that kind of spirituality because of my father—a mystical Jew. I must have gotten this from the higher sources, from above, just passed on to me. ‘Cause I’m extremely spiritual and I believe in the good of people, the good of the world, that you can create anything that can come to you. You are really the [one] person that can bring the good to you.
Do you consider yourself a feminist?
I am a woman, and I do everything! I build homes, I collect art, I travel the world, I’m independent! I don’t need permission to do anything, and, of course, my husband and I collaborate, but I do it all. And sometimes to the extent where I am a little controlling cause I want things done the way I want them to be done. I’m on top of every aspect of the production [of this show]. I always thought—what I’ve become is amazing because no one taught me! I had a father who was a rabbi who meditated and prayed all day long, [so] I taught myself. I’ve become extremely independent. I taught my children to be equal and to be successful in their own right and that’s what they did.
What advice do you have for young artists and women?
It’s what I tell my daughters when they were looking for love: you don’t have to look for a rich partner, you have to look for an ambitious partner. Somebody that will be an amazing partner to you, that you can build something together. Because the world is all open for you. If some doors close, better ones will open. It’s all out there—you just have to open your eyes and pick. You have to be open in order to receive.
What are you looking forward to?
I’m excited to do it in New York, the Mecca of theater. And it’s exciting for me that my story will be exposed to all immigrants and all Americans. It’s not just a Jewish and Israeli story—it’s an immigrant story as well.