“You have a letter,” Jonas told her. “From Mr. Krushchev.”
Letters. Rose was buried in letters. Letters of rejection from theater companies to whom she’d sent her revisionist Othello script. There were traditional theater companies and avant-garde ones. Off-Broadway, and Off-Off-broadway. There were basements of clubs and attics of private homes. Rose had great hopes for The Harlem Negro Theatre, resuscitated by a handful of members after the shuttering of the American Negro Theatre a few years earlier. But their no, thank you came so quickly, Rose couldn’t believe they’d even had time to read her offering.
“My parents are longtime donors,” Jonas offered by way of an explanation.
Neither Jonas’s parents nor Rose’s mother had gone into hysterics. They hadn’t gone into much of anything. They continued phoning their respective children, discussing a wide variety of topics, from their professional prospects to current events, to books read, to which neighbor was sick, dead, or moving to Florida (the latter was primarily Rose’s mother). What they did not discuss was their children’s engagement, which should, theoretically, lead to marriage. They didn’t acknowledge the other person at all. It was terribly civilized. And terribly frustrating.
At this point, Rose was more likely to believe that she’d received a letter from the Soviet premiere than that she’d heard confirmation of her existence from Jonas’s parents. Except when it came to making sure her play starring their son wasn’t produced on their turf. Especially when it was true.
The letter wasn’t from Nikita Khrushchev himself. But it was from the International Preparatory Committee of the 6th World Festival of Youth and Students to be held in Moscow, USSR, during the Summer of 1957 under the coordination of the Komsomol and the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. And all of that information was just on the letterhead.
Rose read it through once. Then she read it through the second time to make certain she understood it the first time.
Rose told Jonas, “They’re inviting me — us — to put on our version of Othello at this festival — they’ve had it before. In Prague, in Budapest, in East Berlin, Bucharest, Warsaw. It’s supposed to represent global youth solidarity for democracy, against war, all war — nuclear war, especially, and against imperialism. This is the first time it’s being held in the USSR.”
“The USSR is throwing a pro-democracy festival?” he struggled to keep the incredulity out of his voice. He didn’t struggle very hard.
“The USSR is a democracy!” Rose bristled. “They have elections at all levels and 100 percent citizen participation! Not like America, with their poll taxes, their literacy tests, grandfather clauses, and gerrymandering. Everyone votes in the Soviet Union.”
Jonas held up his hands, palms out, a combination of surrender and a plea for peace — how appropriate under the circumstances. “And they want us to participate in this festival?”
Rose nodded, picking up enthusiasm with every bob of her head. “They said they’ll provide us with a theater, English-speaking actors, technical staff, anything we need. They want you to star. And they want me to direct.”
She’d never even thought about directing. It was one thing for women to write. That was considered adequately ladylike — as long as they stuck to ladylike subjects. But directing was a whole other matter. The American Theater Wing may have created the Antoinette Perry Awards for Excellence in Broadway in 1947, naming them after the actress, producer, director, and co-founder of their organization. But that didn’t mean they approved of other women following in her footsteps. Agnes DeMille might occasionally direct a musical — as long as it was mostly dance and she was primarily a choreographer. And Margo Jones could help Tennessee Williams and William Inge develop their plays regionally at her groundbreaking Dallas theater. But once their work made it to Broadway, it was time for the men to step up and direct them properly.
“Do you want to do it?” Jonas asked. “You were so worried about anyone finding out that you’d gone to Spain. This seems so much more risky.”
“That was before.” The recent non-stop rejection had inoculated Rose against getting her hopes up about anything. But she felt a breakthrough infection coming on. “That was while Stalin was alive, and Joseph McCarthy was holding his illegal witch-hunts. Everything is different now. The USSR isn’t what it was. It’s a free society now. Khruschev saw to that with his speech. This festival just confirms it. And ever since Edward Murrow humiliated McCarthy on television and the Senate censured him, well, nobody takes his nonsense seriously anymore. That’s all over.”
She wouldn’t do it if Jonas didn’t want her to. Rose understood that he would be taking a bigger risk than her. If the issue ever came up, Rose could fall back on the Lucille Ball defense, claiming she only registered as a member of the Communist party “to appease an old man,” namely her grandfather, and when asked about sponsoring a Party member for state election claim not to remember doing so – she was just a dizzy broad, how could she possibly be held accountable for her actions? For Jonas, though, a trip to a left-wing youth festival could be the perfect excuse to keep him from future jobs – among those who bothered coming up with one.
This couldn’t be exclusively about her. This had to be about them both. It was such an amazing opportunity. Jonas could finally perform one of Shakespeare’s classic roles. He could demonstrate what he was capable of outside the shackles of American commercial production. They could demonstrate what they were capable of together. On an international stage, before the next generation. This was their chance to affect the future for couples like them. It was their chance to change the world. It was their chance to matter. But only if Jonas agreed.
Rose tried to keep her face neutral. She tried not to let Jonas see how much this meant to her. She didn’t want to influence his decision. She didn’t want to be selfish. She tried to slow down her heartbeat, lest he could hear it. She tried to level her breathing. She suspected she was failing. Miserably.
Jonas pulled the letter out of Rose’s hands. He skimmed it once, then also did a second read. He looked down at Rose’s unbiased, objective, disinterested face.
He asked, “When do we leave?”
To start Go On Pretending at the beginning, click here.
Alina Adams is the New York Times best-selling author of the As the World Turns tie-ins, Oakdale Confidential and The Man From Oakdale, and Guiding Light’s Jonathan’s Story. Check out her new historical fiction, My Mother’s Secret: A Novel of the Jewish Autonomous Region, out now! Only $.99 cents in January 2023!