Colorado playwright explores cultural conflicts of immigration, religion

Niwot-based playwright Don Fried.
Niwot-based playwright Don Fried.
The May 12 immigration raid at the Agriprocessors kosher meatpacking plant in Postville, Iowa changed the lives of many people. Immigrants were detained, criminally convicted and subsequently deported. Some immigrants were sent back into the community with ankle tracking devices but left with few options to materially provide for themselves or their children. Still others face criminal prosecution.

It’s a story that’s been difficult to ignore and one that has drawn a worldwide audience. It seems odd, then, that a man who has charged himself with writing a theatrical production based on the events in Postville would have spent the last seven months, as he put it, “with his head in the sand.”

“I see this as being a microcosm of other things that are going on in the country and the world,” said Don Fried, an accomplished Colorado-based playwright and author.

Fried first heard of Postville several years ago, courtesy of a BBC interview with Stephen Bloom, a University of Iowa journalism professor and author of “Postville: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America,” published in 2000. Fried, who had worked internationally for roughly 30 years as an information technology expert, was in Zurich when he heard the interview and immediately wrote the basics down in his idea file.

After hearing Bloom talk about the book and the community of Postville, Fried said he knew the story offered several avenues for dramatic possibilities because of the cultural conflicts brewing in the community between the Hasidic Jews who founded a kosher meatpacking plant there, the immigrant workers who came to work at the plant and the native Iowa residents.

When he retired in September 2006 and embarked on a new career in the arts, he went back to school at the University of Colorado and began re-visiting the ideas he had filed away.

A resident of Niwot, Colorado, Fried he has had four of his plays in production in the first 24 months of his writing career. Two more are scheduled for 2009. His play, “Shakespeare Incorporated,” was selected as one of three finalists in the 2009 Rocky Mountain Theatre Association Festival Playwriting Competition and was also selected as one of the winners of Paragon Theater’s Trench New Play Development Competition. He’s also the co-author of “Ups & Downs: The (Mis)Adventures of a Crusty Old Fart and His Bouncy Son As They Trek Through the Alps.”

Although Fried began discussions with Bloom for the theatrical rights to the Postville book some time prior to the immigration raid, the two were in final negotiations when the event occurred. Fried was left with a monumental decision: Should he somehow incorporate the most recent events in Postville into the play he was writing, or should he ignore them entirely?

“As I was preparing for the first reading, I decided I couldn’t bury my head in the sand any longer and that I’d have to come to a decision,” he said. “How could I include what was going on and have it strengthen my theme instead of changing everything I’ve already done?

“I had consciously chosen to ignore the raid and its aftermath — fines, arrests, the meatpacking company going into receivership, and general uproar. But in the seven months since the raid, there has been ongoing news coverage, and I was becoming increasingly concerned that my play was being hijacked. People would expect to see the raid and its implications addressed.”

Fried, who has just finished the first half of the work and has given a first reading, said the overriding theme of his play is that change is an inextricable facet of life.

“What I wanted the play to be about is change,” he said. “Change is inevitable. Change hurts. People, often when they are in pain, react in ways that often turn out to be not the right way, but often there is nobody at fault. If you can learn to live [with change], you’ll learn to reach a new position where things are different, but you’ll get over it.”

Fried is currently toying with the idea of having one of the play’s discontented locals, a character who has not been happy about Jewish people coming to town and building a kosher meatpacking plant there, tip off the federal authorities and spark the immigration raid.

“But then, as the town starts to crater, that person and all the others begin to wonder what has been done — they’ve killed the goose that laid the golden egg,” he said. “My son, who is also playwright, said that this should be the third act. The Hasidim, who have been very isolationist all along, are now presented with a catalyst that shows them they have to deal more with the world.”

One thing Fried does not want the play to be is a tragedy. To keep the play from going that route, he thinks the Hasidim and the residents of Postville will reach some sort of an agreement where they are “not kissing each other on the lips” but have moved to a new position that is livable.

Regardless of how the play ultimately ends, Fried is hopeful a theater company in Iowa or a neighboring state will be interested in producing it.

“Of course, I’ll shop the play anywhere where there is a company that wants to put it on,” he said. “But I was thinking there might be interest in and around that area. It would be a good fit, as long as I could get people to understand that this is a fictional account. It’s no more about what actually happened than ‘The Cruicible’ is about what actually happened in the Salem witch trials.”

This story was originally published at The Iowa Independent. Read more of Lynda Waddington’s coverage of the Postville immigration raids.

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