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Crakes’ Play, Golden Land, Breaks Attendance Records

The Roial Players – a Michigan State University student-led arts group – set records in April 2015 with the performance of MSU’s Residential College in the Arts and Humanities senior Jenny Crakes’ original play, Golden Land.

Golden Land tells the story of three Russian Jewish immigrant sisters working in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. Crakes started writing the story of the sisters Leah, Sara and Anya, when she was about 13 years old. She was inspired own family’s immigrant history as well as books she’d read growing up.

“I put it away for a long time,” Crakes said. But, she pulled the poems out again last year in a writing class and turned the project into a full-length play. “I realized (the factory fire) wasn’t where the story would begin. It had to start with their journey over and the experience of leaving Russia and coming to a new country, because it shows how brave they are.”

The play was a creative addition to Crakes’ senior thesis project, which focuses on the identity of Jewish immigrant garment workers in the early 1900s.

“It’s very cool because it’s seeing your own story come to life. As a playwright, I didn’t have a full realized idea of who exactly the characters would be when they came to life, and the actors helped to make them who they are,” Crakes said. “Through the rehearsal process, all of the actors really brought their own creative agency and ideas for developing characters and scenes and moments of humor I hadn’t thought of. It helped develop the play into three dimensions.”

Throughout the process, Crakes said she learned a lot about working collaboratively and developing characters.

“I learned how important it is to have an emotional balance when you’re creating a piece for your audience. You have to make it believable in order to draw people in and they have to be able to grow attached to the characters and be invested in the story. Seeing how characters act in all these different situations helps the audience to believe in them as people.”

RCAH and theater student Megan Wesner starred as Leah, the eldest sister. Wesner said Leah was one of the most complex roles she’s ever played.

“I thought a lot about how Leah definitely acts as a kind of second mother, and because of that there is a sense that she can’t be as open and as rambunctious as her two sisters. She has a huge sense of duty to her family and she fiercely protects them, I think almost to a fault at times,” she said. “Leah is very scared and I think a lot of that fear comes from fear of losing her family and losing what she knows, so she clings very tightly to what she can, and that is her sisters.”

Throughout the performance, a number of audience members were visibly affected, brought to tears by the reality of the tale. Crakes directed the production alongside her friend and fellow RCAH senior Dan Finegan. He said he was very pleased with the show, especially after the cast and crew worked so hard to do justice to Crakes’ script on a tight budget.

“Jenny put so many details into the script. Usually, we choose to do bare-bones work where it’s really simple costumes and very simple set blocks. But that wasn’t what we wanted to do with this production. We wanted to put a lot of work into details and props and costumes,” he said. “When they took the final bow, I just lost it and started crying. This production has meant so much to me and to see the cast and crew come together as a family through that process, it’s a transformative experience.”

– RCAH student Kelsey Block. 

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