David Lloyd Olson has loved the theater since his days treading the boards as a kid at the Alterman Star Theater Camp, part of Atlanta’s Marcus Jewish Community Center. The D.C. resident, who lives in the Parkview area of Northwest, can still be found at a Jewish community center theater. Now Olson works behind the scenes as managing director of Theater J, the nation’s premiere and critically acclaimed Jewish theater, housed in the Edlavitch DCJCC on 16th and Q streets, NW. While he has mostly tucked away his makeup kit and rehearsal togs (save for an occasional turn as DivaD Llicious, his drag queen persona), his focus on finances, fundraising, budgeting and overseeing the business side of a busy professional theater is integral to keeping the lights on, the stage and seats full, and the post-show conversations lively.
Tell me about your background. It’s a bit different from the typical history of Ashkenazi northeastern Jews.
I grew up in Atlanta, very close to my mother’s family. Her father also grew up in the Atlanta area. My father was born in northern Illinois – he isn’t Jewish. That side of the family we visited, but every Friday night our family had dinner together at my [mother’s parents] grandparents’ house. A lot of nights we had fried chicken because it’s the South, but my mother’s mother was Mexican, so we had flan on Rosh Hashanah and Passover. We were a Southern Jewish family, a Mexican Jewish family, and I also have Syrian family, so a Syrian Jewish family.
What was it like as a Jewish kid in the South?
Growing up, Judaism was my dominant identity. I grew up at the Atlanta Jewish Community Center preschool. I went to Congregation Etz Chaim where I was bar mitzvahed. I credit my mother, she took Hebrew school very seriously, so I took Hebrew school very seriously. And, because my last name wasn’t Cohen or Levine, I felt like I had to prove myself. I really embraced my Jewish studies and always felt like Jewish community was home for me. Later I taught Hebrew school, and I recently joined the board of Adas Israel Congregation, where my husband and I got married.
What brought you to the Washington, D.C., area?
I went to a performing arts high school in Atlanta, and then to the University of Maryland on a performing arts scholarship. My husband – Jonah Richmond – and I met at Hillel at Maryland. I figured out while I was an undergrad that I really didn’t want to be an actor. I love and respect actors and I’m so grateful to work with them every day – they have one of the hardest and most rewarding jobs on the planet. They’re like magicians. I found a wonderful path that allowed me to work in theater and use my skills in problem solving and management on the administrative side of theater. That’s where my most of my career has been.
What does it mean in the 21st century to be a Jewish theater?
The Jewish community has always been multicultural – 21st century Jewish theater needs to reflect the diversity of the Jewish community, not just in our history but also in our current contemporary world. In this world, the Jewish community is becoming more diverse and so we have a real responsibility, and I’m grateful that Theater J has a program where we’re commissioning plays that tell the stories of ethnically and racially diverse Jewish communities.
As a 21st century Jewish theater, we cannot continue to just tell the same narrative that we came over from Eastern Europe. Of course, that narrative is important, but we need to tell the whole Jewish story in all its complexities. And, as we become a more diverse community, we also become a more complex community. And that means that people have different ideologies and different answers to the same questions.
A 21st-century Jewish theater needs to hold a space where some of these big questions about who we are, where we came from, and where we’re going can be discussed. The nuances and complexities of this conversation can exist in a community, in a space together. It’s like a tractate of Talmud where you have all these different opinions and perspectives on the same Jewish law.
A Jewish theater needs to be a place where different perspectives and different ideas can exist in a place and in an art form. [Theater] is really good at showing the human experience and human emotion and allowing our community to feel togetherness. We know we don’t always agree on everything; my hope is that we’re strengthened by our diversity and we’re strengthened by our shared experiences – whether your family came here from Lithuania, or Syria, or Ethiopia, we are stronger when we are able to share these stories and experiences in community together.
And Theater J isn’t just for Jewish audiences or Jewish artists.
Yes! A huge part of our work right now is that we recognize this moment of rising antisemitism, which is really difficult for the Jewish community. We not only need to be a space where people can come and feel safe in a Jewish place, but we also understand that by telling Jewish stories in our community and sharing these Jewish experiences with non-Jews, we are fighting antisemitism and helping to build tolerance, appreciation, and bridges with other communities. A lot of our work in the past, really, 33 years, has been helping fight antisemitism by showing authentic Jewish stories and Jewish experiences and sharing them with our neighbors in the community who aren’t Jewish.
Theater has a way of telling stories and showing real human experiences that sound bites and other media don’t have the ability to fully convey the emotion and the experience of what it means to be Jewish, which is complex. American society really struggles with the role of Jews in the narrative because of the deep history of racism … that American society, I think, is still struggling with.
For information on upcoming programs at Theater J, visit theaterj.org.
Lisa Traiger is the arts correspondent for Washington Jewish Week.