“Guilty Parties” gets at what’s eating the misunderstood millennial generation

By Christina Campodonico

Karey Kessler maps out anxieties of global awareness for an art piece on view during “Guilty Parties”

“Is there really such a thing as millennial guilt?” I wonder as I watch Jewish Women’s Theatre’s “Guilty Parties” on Saturday night. An actress has just played an acoustic version of Brittany Spears’ “Oops! … I Did It Again” in English and Hebrew, and the ensemble is throwing out a litany of confessions profound and profane: not being able to forgo another slice of cake, binge-watching “Say Yes to the Dress,” and failing to vote in the last election.

These themes of guilt, gluttony and shirked civic duty comprise the latest production of NEXT@The Braid, a cohort of rising twenty- and thirtysomething theater professionals brought together by JWT and a $150,000 grant from the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles to bring voice to a generation that gets a lot of air time, but not much sympathy.

According to the media, millennials (including moi) should feel guilty about a lot of things. We’ve have been shamed for moving back home, putting off marriage and kids, killing the napkin industry and even buying too much avocado toast. (Guilty on all counts.)

But NEXT’s group of theater artists, or “council” as they call it, wanted to show a different side of what keeps millennials (and those often grouped with the generation) up at night in their staged reading of curated stories, each based on true events.

“It’s been really important to all of us to represent our generation,” says “Guilty Parties” director Lisa Cirincione, who identifies as “cusp” millennial. “To represent the millennial voice, it’s not just about the stereotypes that have been portrayed in the media. It’s to really represent the millennial voice that is full of depth and intellect and compassion and hunger to make the world a better place.

“For us, the guilt is more about having been given so much and maybe having the guilt of not knowing what to do with it, or how to make our mark. … There’s guilt about not taking a stand for the environment. There’s guilt about not being politi-
cally active. There’s guilt about taking the comfort of our lives for granted. But also the basic human guilt of fidelity — guilt about not spending time with our families, our kids, taking care of our bodies.”

Some of those themes appear in the art exhibit of same name accompanying “Guilty Parties” at The Braid. A map by artist Karey Kessler is covered with phrases mourning the desecration of the Earth. A colorful canvas spelling out “Bullshit” echoes Parkland shooting survivor Emma Gonzalez’s viral “B.S.” speech to signal sincere, if belated, solidarity with a new wave of young activists like her. And pink buckets accessorizing a dolled up mannequin represent the body-shaming purges of bulimia.

“I think that millennials are generally not seen as really caring about these kinds of issues,” says the art show’s curator Julie Gumpert, who identifies as “somewhere between Gen X and millennial.” “I think the art reflects a more pensive generation.”

In the staged salon-style reading of “Guilty Parties,” guilt manifests itself in myriad other ways — the young couple who feel bad for the deceased elderly neighbor whose body is left undiscovered for weeks; the foster parent who rejoices when the parental rights of her ward’s parents are terminated; the 62-year-old woman dating a 26-year-old and loving it.

“Sometimes guilt isn’t always negative,” says NEXT Executive Producer Abbe Meryl Feder, who describes herself as “millennial-adjacent.” “Sometimes there are guilty pleasures, and sometimes there are actions we don’t feel guilty about but society thinks we should feel guilty about. So there’s sort of external guilt and tons of internal guilt, of course. And then ‘Jewish guilt’ is a theme.”

Among the stories in the cycle that touch upon proverbial “Jewish guilt” are a story about the Holocaust with a “modern twist,” says Feder, and a tear-inducing story about a Jewish mother and daughter searching for a future wedding dress. But there’s also a monologue by an everyday young woman who can’t order a latte without thinking about the social, economic and political implications of the act, as well as the cacophony of confessions at the top of the show, transcending age, race, gender, ethnicity and religious persuasion.

“Not everybody on the council is Jewish. Not every writer is Jewish. Not every artist or actor in the show is Jewish, but we’re still able to put a Jewish lens on whatever the theme might be,” says Feder. “Guilt … it’s very universal. And in that way, I think it’s very personal. I think it’s actually a huge part of transitioning from this age into kind of full adulthood — deciding what your own boundaries are … what does make you feel guilty.”

“A story, is a story, is a story,” adds Cirincione. “No matter what the topic of the story is, everybody can have anxiety, everyone can relate to the fear of not being successful, or not being a good mother or daughter, or not being a good husband or wife. As actors we’re asked to take a story as our own, so whether it’s a millennial story or a Baby Boomer story — they’re universal.”

Maybe there is such a thing as “millennial guilt.” We’re only human, after all.

“Guilty Parties” returns to The Braid (2912 Colorado Ave., Ste. 102, Santa Monica) at 7:30 p.m. Monday and Tuesday (May 14 and 15), with the art show on display before and after the performances. Tickets are $40. Call (310) 315-1400 or visit jewishwomenstheatre.org.