By Ellen Braunstein, Special to Chicago Jewish News
“Rocket City, Alabam,” coming to Skokie Theatre in November, plumbs the mystery of how brilliant Nazi rocket scientist Wernher Von Braun became a hero in the Deep South.
In the early 1950s, at the dawn of the Cold War, Hitler’s top rocket engineers, led by Von Braun, were quietly slipped into the U.S. to create an American guided atomic missile program.
These Germans had to be settled somewhere, and the spot selected by the U.S. Army was a base in Huntsville, Alabama, a southern town which happened to be home to a century-old Jewish community.
It is there that Jewish playwright Mark Saltzman sets his fictionalized account of true events in this suppressed slice of American history. “I always thought that this was just so fascinating. I knew about Wernher Von Braun, but I always thought he was a very shadowy figure like Dr. Strangelove, tucked away in the Pentagon somewhere. But he’s a hero in Alabama. There’s a performing arts center and a boulevard named after him. How could this be? This is Hitler’s number one rocket builder, a Sieg Heil!, swastika-on German, who destroyed London with his V2 missiles.”
In Saltzman’s comedy-drama, young all-American Army major, Hamilton Pike Jr., oversees a team headed by Von Braun. As the Germans are carefully assimilated into Jim Crow-era Huntsville, passionate objections arise from some townspeople and from Amy Lubin, a college-age Jewish New Yorker engaged to Jed Kessler, a local boy.
The battle of wills between Pike and Lubin explores revenge and forgiveness, idealism and practicality, presenting these themes with sensitivity and a bittersweet humor. The Alabama townsfolk are wise, greedy, petty and funny as “little ol’ Huhs-vull” is transformed into “Rocket City, Alabam.” Music is brought into the show through a black character who is a truck driver and blues musician.
The play raises the issue of how Von Braun was repackaged and reinvented, sold to an American public through a cover on Time and an educational collaboration on the Walt Disney Show. He became the father of rocket technology and space science in the United States.
In the course of developing the play, Saltzman became curious as to why there weren’t objections from the Jewish community that went back to pre-Civil War days. “There’s a quietness in the Southern Jewish culture that emerged from well-off German immigrants, who assimilated and weren’t self-identifying in any big way.”
One of the ways objections were squelched was the federal money pouring into Huntsville because of the rocket program. “Huntsville became extremely wealthy, there was so much building,” Saltzman said.
Saltzman is no stranger to Jewish themes in theater and television. His first musical “A Tinpan Alley Rag” was based on a likely encounter between Scott Joplin and Irving Berlin in 1911. It showcases the biographical background of both composers. Berlin, the classic Russian immigrant comes to America impoverished and makes something of himself. The play explores his lower East Side roots and assimilation.
In the 1980s, Saltzman worked on the Emmy award-winning “Shalom Sesame,” the Israeli Sesame Street adapted for American children. “That got me my first visit to Israel and I’ve been there many times since. There were other Jewish Sesame Street writers but I was the only one with a traditional Jewish education who knew enough Hebrew that I could get by.”
“Rocket City, Alabam” was last in production in 2009 at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival. Never did Saltzman think his play would need to be updated for the 2017 production in Skokie. “I wrote this for a 2009 production when American Nazism was way in the margins. Now here it is in our faces. They are marching in Charlottesville. So I had to accommodate that in this play. There is a blatant Nazi presence.”
The production of “Rocket City, Alabam” at Skokie Theatre runs Nov. 3 to Nov. 19, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m with a matinee on Nov. 8 at 1:30 p.m. For tickets and more information visit SkokieTheatre.org or call 847-677-7761.