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Elizabeth Swados’ play "Ten Years of Hope" opens

February 29, 2004
Elizabeth Swados
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Elizabeth Swados. Photo by Dixie Sheridan.

''As a Jew I'm supposed to do this,'' Elizabeth Swados said. ''It's called a mitzvah. I think I'm buying some good Jewish time from this.''

A play by a Jewish woman about Roman Catholic nuns might seem to be a mismatch.  But to renowned composer Elizabeth Swados it was a natural fit.   In 1997, she had written Missionaries, a musical exploration of the murder of four American churchwomen in El Salvador.  In Ten Years of Hope, she reversed her perspective, portraying the lives of immigrant women from countries like El Salvador who seek a new haven in Brooklyn, learning English, searching for work, and raising their families in a new and different land. 

The new piece was commissioned by Sisters Mary Burns and Mary Dowd, who run the Maura Clarke-Ita Ford Center in Bushwick, Brooklyn, named for two of the nuns killed in the 1980 attack.  After the Sisters spent years promoting her earlier work in performances around the country, Ms. Swados accepted their new commission, but not their money. 

“There are many of these little pockets around the city, which you never see,'' Sister Mary Burns said. ''That is where the women religious are. We're just not that visible because we work with the invisible.''  Interviewing the women working to create new lives in an often-hostile new world, Swados created a 15-song choral work for six actresses that debuted at the Mary Louis Academy in Jamaica Estates, Queens.  One of the first women to seek help at the shelter, Ada Martinez said, ''They expressed it the way it really happened. We started from the bottom and have gone ahead with each step.''

''This has helped me with my faith,'' Swados said.  'My faith is very practical. It is about helping people to sing, dance and make shows.  It could have been squashed by bad reviews or bad experiences.  But when I am with these women, I understand why it is I do what I do.  I understand what it means to give something.''

Perhaps best known for her Broadway and international smash hit Runaways, Elizabeth Swados has composed, written and directed for over thirty years.  Some of her works include the Obie Award-winning Trilogy at La MaMa, Alice at the Palace with Meryl Streep at the New York Shakespeare Theater Festival and Groundhog, which was optioned by Milos Forman for a film.  Her work has been performed on Broadway, off-Broadway, at La MaMa, Brooklyn Academy of Music, Carnegie Hall, and locations all over the world, including with Peter Brook in Africa.  She is currently on the faculty at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University.

Of her work on Missionaries Swados said, "I'm a Jew and I did it for Jewish reasons. We're not supposed to forget. We're supposed to seek justice. We're supposed to speak out...If there's any kind of prayer, I believe it's in song, in music...Music is universal. It can touch an unconscious nerve."

See also: “Barbara Dobkin,” Jewish Women and the Feminist Revolution; “Celebrating 350 years of Jewish women in America,” This Week in History; “From the Fire,” Jewesses With Attitude; “Julie Taymor,” Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia.

Sources: “Citywide: A Musical Gift to Faithful Messengers,” New York Times; Elizabeth Swados; Missionaries in Concert.

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Jewish Women's Archive. "This Week in History - Elizabeth Swados’ play "Ten Years of Hope" opens." (Viewed on April 17, 2014) <http://jwa.org/thisweek/feb/29/2004/elizabeth-swados>.