Actress Michelle Azar’s transformation into Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg took significantly more than pulling her hair back in a severe bun and donning the oversized eyeglasses, the white collar and the solemn black robe of jurisprudence.
Azar stars in the one-person drama All Things Equal: The Life and Trials of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a world premiere now onstage at freeFall Theatre in St. Petersburg.
In the early moments of the play, from Tony winner Rupert Holmes (The Mystery of Edwin Drood), Ginsburg talks with pride about her granddaughter.
“When I cross my hands and close my eyes, I can feel my own Bubbie,” the Los Angeles-based Azar says. “Physically, to start from that place, was the first moment of grounding.”
The more she immersed herself in the script, in which Ginsburg discusses everything from her religious and political beliefs to the decades of pioneering (and often thankless) work she did for women’s rights, the more Azar found to like and identify with.
Reflecting on her mother, Ginsburg asks “What’s the difference between a woman being a bookkeeper in New York’s garment district and a United States Supreme Court Justice? It’s just one generation.”
Azar found parallels in her own family history.
“She just never stopped, and that also resonates for me,” she explains. “My kids are always like ‘Can’t you just let it go?’ If it’s something in our synagogue, or somebody not delivering something on time, I have this dog-with-a-bone quality. And RBG certainly does. But she makes that comment that she could do without sleep. I definitely need my sleep.”
All Things Equal is having its first “out of town tryout” (through Oct. 30) at freeFall; the preview performance Oct. 5 marked the first time any audience saw it.
After a month in Sag Harbor, NY, it will resume in February, for a cross-country tour. After that, who knows?
From his home in New York, Holmes has been revising the play, sending Azar and the team at freeFall fresh lines, and entire pages of dialogue, semi-weekly. It’s a work in progress.
“The way that we will continue to find things in the months to come is just exhilarating,” says Azar. “And that’s also what keeps me going – and from being terrified. This is by no means with a ribbon and we’re done.”
Azar, who has a vast resume of stage and television appearances (she once played Janis Joplin in Beehive) wrote and performed the one-woman show From Baghdad to Brooklyn in 2017. Utilizing narrative, music and poetry, it is the story of her iron-willed grandmother (her Bubbie), who was sold into an arranged marriage in Iran at the age of 13, and her Iraqi-born, Israeli-raised son – Azar’s father – who emigrated to America and started a family of his own.
Azar performed From Baghdad to Brooklyn, and sold it out, at the United Solo Festival in New York.
Solo performance, with no other actors in the stage with whom to interact (or rely upon), can be intimidating. With her own show, however, Azar “played” the other characters on her life’s journey. “I’d get nervous before I go out, but then I tell myself no, no, no, I’m just talking to these people onstage,” she says.
All Things Equal is different. Although her RBG tells the audience all about her husband, the ever-supportive taxattorney Martin Ginsburg, along with fellow Supremes Sandra Day O’Connor and Anthony Scalia and others, she does not “become them” by adopting their voices or mannerisms.
Which means it’s all Michelle-as-Ruth, all the time. “Then you just calm your mind and say ‘I am here to do service for this incredible force of nature.’ And that’s the end of the day.”
Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a pioneering liberal force in American law, and during All Things Equal she describes – in a friendly, matter-of-far manner – her victories, her defeats, her triumphs and her tribulations as a smart and strong-willed woman in a world historically dominated by men.
Even Michelle Azur, who inhabits the woman on a nightly basis, wasn’t ware of the full breadth of Justice Ginsburg’s influence.
“I had a really strong but vague understanding,” Azar explains. “But the idea that because of those things she did in the ‘70s, that I can, and my daughters can, I had no idea the extent to which her hand goes.
“I did not know that just because of her, my daughter who is a very proud LGBTQ woman in Michigan, is doing the work she is doing and being supported, specifically, by RBG.”
Before Azar left Los Angeles for St. Petersburg, her husband – Rabbi Jonathan Aaron of Temple Emmanuel of Beverly Hills – gifted her with a little book, Decisions and Dissents of Ruth Bader Ginsberg, with writings on matters of gender equality and women’s rights, reproductive health care and more.
Azar has the book with her, and studies it every day to sink more fully into her onstage alter ego.
“It is said that the scholar, whoever says ‘I know everything,’ has a congregation of one,” Azar explains. “Because we’re really seeking to just keep learning and learning.”
Info and tickets for the freeFall production are here.
Monday in the Catalyst: A conversation with playwright Rupert Holmes.