Ask Playbill.com is a new weekly Playbill.com column that will answer questions about theatre, generated by readers and Playbill.com staff, every Thursday. To ask a question, email AskPlaybill@Playbill.com. Please specify how you would like your name displayed and please include the city in which you live. This week's question comes from Doug Chertok of New York, NY.
Question: "Last night I saw a great performance of Jack Goes Boating. Halfway through the performance, Daphne Rubin-Vega recites the lyrics from a song. I seem to recall hearing these same lyrics many times in the Reform Synagogue while growing up. Is my memory accurate?"
Anyone who has seen the LAByrinth Theater Company's production of Jack Goes Boating at the Public Theater knows the song Mr. Chertok is talking about. Jack (Philip Seymour Hoffman) plays the song — "Rivers of Babylon" by The Melodians — over and over again on a tape recorder that he carries around as if he were Linus holding onto his blanket. In once scene Jack's friend Clyde (John Ortiz) tells his wife Lucy (Rubin-Vega), "I can't get it out of my head," and the audience knows exactly what he means. Lucy replies by taunting Clyde, reciting the lyrics, "Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, over I," which is the sentence to which Mr. Chertok refers.
That sentence originally comes from the Bible, from Psalm 19:14, and it is indeed used in Jewish services. The phrase is read silently, at the end of the silent prayer that occurs in the middle of the regular service held three times a day in every denomination of Judaism.
Much of the song, including its beginning lines — "By the rivers of Babylon / Where we sat down / And there we wept / When we remembered Zion" — comes from a different place in the Bible: Psalm 137, in which the Jews react to being exiled from Jerusalem to Babylon (located in present-day Iraq) in the sixth century BCE. Rabbi James Diamond, the former Jewish chaplain at Princeton University, told Playbill.com that in the psalm, the Jews are "remembering where they came from and lamenting their exile. It's a hope for return, which becomes a major theme in Jewish history." Orthodox Jews occasionally recite from the psalm during the grace after meals.
In adapting the psalm into a reggae song, The Melodians were implicitly relating the exile of the Jews to the exile of Africans taken from their native land during slavery. The psalm has been the inspiration for many other works, including Stephen Schwartz's song "On the Willows" from Godspell.
The playwright, Bob Glaudini, says that he's "not particularly a reggae-ite," and when he first started writing, his inclusion of "Rivers of Babylon" in his play wasn't calculated. "I didn't try and research what song would fit," he says. "It just sprang to mind." Glaudini remembered the song from when it became popular after appearing on the soundtrack of the 1972 film "The Harder They Come" in which Jimmy Cliff played a reggae musician. "For a while, you heard it everywhere," Glaudini says. Other artists have recorded the song, including Sublime.
But as he continued writing, Glaudini says, he began to realize how the song related to the story. The play is about a loveable but anxiety-ridden man named Jack who starts dating a fellow social misfit named Connie (Beth Cole), at the urging of their married friends Lucy and Clyde, who seem relatively well-adjusted but actually have problems of their own. Glaudini says the play explores "the themes of feeling like an outsider, and longing, and the song seems to represent that to me. Even against particular odds, the searching for hope and — I don't know — love, I guess."
Though the play is set in present day, Glaudini says that the reggae music — along with the characters' marijuana smoking and generally laid-back demeanor — helps convey the idea that the characters are descendants of Bohemians from the 1960s and 1970s and earlier. "A large class of people, whether they know it or not, their lifestyles, their attitude, their ironic look on things, it's linked through personality over the years, and [it's] in these characters, the Latin couple in their way, and Jack most obviously. And, Connie is sort of the fish out of water who is coming to inhabit that that looser social exchange."
For sound design aficionados who are curious about these things, in the production the song is played on the actual tape recorder Jack is carrying, until the tape recorder breaks and makes the song sound distorted. At that point, the distorted version is played through hidden speakers.
Glaudini didn't listen to the song that much while writing the play. "I would have been driven mad," he says. After one performance, Glaudini recalls, he was in the dressing room when the Public's former head George C. Wolfe came to thank the cast: "He said, 'I just can't get that song out of my head!'"