Anna Fishbeyn, AB’93, AM’95, documents her family’s transition from Soviet Russia to America in a one-woman show at the New Ohio Theatre in New York.
“There’s a girl, and she’s graduating from her PhD program. She’s just received her PhD, she’s thanking the professors, and she reveals to them during her acceptance speech that she’s been lying about who she is,” says Anna Fishbeyn. “It’s a story about lying about your identity, and coming out with who you really are, and accepting who you really are. It’s an ‘out-yourself’ kind of story.”
And it’s completely true. Fishbeyn, AB’93, AM’95, is performing in her one-woman show My Stubborn Tongue at the New Ohio Theatre in New York until August 24. The play documents the story of her family’s transition from Soviet Russia to America. Fishbeyn plays 17 characters, including herself (she was the PhD student), her mother, her grandmother, her father, and her aunt. “This piece is an honest account of our lives, and it’s a piece I’m really proud of,” Fishbeyn says, “I’m doing it in part for them. I’m doing it in part for my mom, I’m doing it in part for my dad, and I’m doing it in part for my grandma who died two years ago.”
Some of Fishbeyn’s inspiration comes from seeing the way her mom is treated living in America with an accent. Fishbeyn recalls an incident when a store cashier asked her mother, “Are you sure you can afford that?” and times when waiters would avoid eye contact with her mother, even though she was often the one footing the bill. My Stubborn Tongue uses humor and lyricism to explain, “You have no idea what this person is like in their actual tongue. And you will never know, because they will never speak in a way that’s palatable for you.”
Despite her history as a child actress and singer in Soviet Russia, Fishbeyn’s path to the stage wasn’t a straight line. After earning a bachelor’s degree in psychology and an master’s in education from UChicago, Fishbeyn went to Columbia University for a PhD in philosophy of education. While writing her dissertation, she enrolled in an MFA program in fiction writing at New School University and began performing her short stories and essays in venues around NYC. “Just writing, for me, is possibly the most gratifying aspect of existence,” she says, “It’s in my blood, and there’s no other way to say it.” After sending videos of her performances to small theaters, she set to work on a show commissioned by the Flea Theater called Sex in Mommyville, which blended Greek mythology and a woman’s struggle with her role in a traditional family. “At the time that I did Sex and Mommyville, everything that occurred was a gift,” she says, “I was a mom who had given birth, and I was breastfeeding, and suddenly I had an opportunity to perform. I was a repressed performer. I had always sort of wanted to do it, but I didn’t.”
It was by writing and performing Sex in Mommyville that Fishbeyn began to understand herself as a feminist and created the production company XO Feminist Productions to back Sex in Mommyville. Reading Virginia Woolf and philosopher Judith Butler for research, Fishbeyn says that writing her show helped her evolve into her present feminist self. “I want to fight for women, women’s empowerment, women’s equality, and having the word ‘feminist’ be released from all of its negative connotations,” she says. The play features a costume change where Fishbeyn transforms from stereotypically feminine to stereotypically masculine, exchanging high heels for combat boots. “That process, the experience of creating that costume, then putting on the costume during performances and rehearsals, honestly changed me. It changed the way I dress, the way I thought about my body, the way that I walked down the street and thought about my own strength and power as a woman.”