The Argentinian Prostitute Play: An untold story of the sex trade in 1920’s Buenos Aires

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  • Niki Hatzidis

The Argentinian Prostitute Play puts an unknown, female-driven story on an off-Broadway stage.  It is a complex immigrant story, a feminist story, and one where women escape their male oppressor in a time where their independence is difficult to grasp on to.  The play takes on a Jewish plight far from the many portrayed of the holocaust, and instead depicts the thriving Jewish community in Buenos Aires.  It follows Aron Feibush and his theater company attempting to put on a production of Hamlet with an inexperienced actor in the title role.  But there is a seedier side to his endeavors; his income mainly relies on the smooth running of his brothel.  Where there is business that depends on sex, comes sex trafficking, and that is where the core of this story and its historical context lies.

Rueven Glezer, a Brooklyn based playwright, and director Zeynep Akca, originally form

Istanbul, have been a collaborating team on The Argentinian Prostitute Play since October 2018 as part of a workshop course under Branden Jacobs-Jenkins.  “Initially the impetus to write the play was investigating a weird event in an opera: I'd seen a workshop of NYTF's The Sorceress and in it there's a scene where the protagonist is carted off to Istanbul,” Glezer told me when discussing his inspiration to write the play.  “I thought this whole scene was some kind of dated 19th century joke but my professor pointed out to me that "being sent to Istanbul or Buenos Aires" was code for being trafficked into the sex trade.  She gave me some books and that's how the initial research into what became the play began.”  “The history and the timelessness of the material was striking,” Akca told me.  “When I read the play I had an immediate reaction to the way the women were written and the care that went into telling a story so uncomfortable to witness at times.”  Through various reading and workshops the play was accepted in to Broadway Bound Festival and performed this August.

The play depicts the anti-semitism Jews faced in Buenos Aires, but violence in the play is mainly focused towards the women.  This is where the play and story-telling is at its strongest.  It is often hard to watch and resonant in the current political climate.  “The biggest challenge of staging this play was honoring the truth of each moment and making the trauma in certain moments visible in a safe and sustainable way,” Said Akca about the rehearsal process and its complexities.  “Being safe and comfortable in the uncomfortable came up a lot because I wanted to create an environment where that was possible,” Zeynep explained.  She shared the thoughts of actor Ben Natan who played Aron Feibush, the main perpetrator of the violence, “some things in this show are hard to say, hard to hear and hard to do as an actor.  However, in an effort to shine a light on a dark moment in history, the difficult things have be done.  But for them to be done safely, there had to be an ecosystem in the rehearsal space where actors felt safe and cared for.”  

The play shows how strong women can be pushed down and manipulated in a male dominated world, and in reference to the time in which the play takes place, they had very little choice other than to obey or perish.  The character of Malka Silber, expertly and passionately portrayed by Anja Avsharian, is a woman who had been caught up in the sex trade herself, but has through the years moved up as the Madam of Aron Feibush’s brothel.  She has her girls’s best interest at heart, ensuring the safety and trying to obtain them a raise.  She even seems to have say and power over Fieibush, but when his masculinity is challenged by a male customer, he lashes out violently and pushes her back to submission. It should also be noted that the character of Malka, shows how some women, perhaps sometimes under coercion, act against their own interest and sex.   

The characters of Hanna Spira (played by Nahar Aminov) and Toiba Neri (played by Tessa Ramirez-Keough) are strong willed as well. Hanna works in a bakery, is devoted to her employer Señora Bernal, but is the one in charge of her younger brother.  She is the matriarch in her home and holds dominance. She is friends with Toiba, knows that she works as a prostitute, someone who had no other choice and who is desperately trying to escape, and she tries to get her a job at the bakery.  But her judgement of her is clear and emotions are heighten when she finds out Toiba is dating her brother Feival. Neri, at times plays Tobia as stoic and compliant, but it is a depiction of resilience.  Aminov portrays an expertly executed range of emotions of a women with an immense responsibility, trying to survive in a world where there is no upward mobility for someone of her class and sex. In the climatic scene of the play, where she is mistaken for a new prostitute by Feibush, she see’s first-hand how brutally the women in that kind of work are literally stripped of their humanity.  Aminov’s character heart-wrenchingly is forced to comply simply because her safety and those of her friends’ are at stake.  

The stigma surrounding these women trying to earn a living, regardless of the circumstances that got them there, is evident throughout.  They are castoffs of their community and the women they encounter treat them even worse.  Ultimately, they are all there with hopes of a better life, yet these women are punished by being tricked or forced in to work they needed to survive.  Most devastating is the true-story of Raquel Liberman which Malka shares in the play.   Raquel was a woman who was lured into the Jewish sex trafficking ring through the Zwi Migdal organization.  She was married in a fake religious ceremony to Jose Salomon Korn who was in fact a notorious pimp. Raquel escaped the organization after only a few years, helped in denouncing it and made it her life’s mission to help women like her.  However, she never escaped the label of prostitute and wasn’t allowed to be buried in the Jewish cemetery the she died in her seventies.  She also, along with the other women caught up in the taboo business, was buried instead in the outskirts of the city.

The play felt like a timely tale and one that seemed pertinent to tell.  “We're seeing such an increase in violence against women, against Jews, against immigrants - this was such a lost historic episode that needed to come to light that confronted all these themes at once,” Glezer explained.  Akca agreed telling me “At its core this is a play about women and the extents they are willing to go for their own autonomy and the role cis men play as gatekeepers.”  She goes on to explain how the conversations around sex work and its legitimacy is as prevalent now as they were in the 1920’s, “this play takes place at a time and location where sex work is legal and yet those who partake in it aren’t free.  It really makes me think about laws, gender roles, and the meaning of freedom.  I hope that by reflecting upon the 1920s Buenos Aires we can find answers to problems today.”

In the end, Feibush is brought down by his own ego and then the women find their escape.  They make a plan, albeit a vague yet hopeful plan, but it consists on starting over in a new place; somewhere they can be seen as people and not sexual objects.  However, the cycle of poverty and limits on a woman’s independence, leaves a hint in the air that perhaps the escape from their current trade is merely temporary and insurmountable.  It is up to the audience to decide if they succeed. “I’d like the audience to come out of the play realizing the world keeps repeating itself and there’s work to be done,” Akca says.  “Feminism has come a long way, women+ are and have been empowered for a long time, but they need to be given the opportunities to live their most authentic truth.  Even within the community of women there are those who are excluding members of our own community.”  The feministic message is clear.  Toxic masculinity is something cis men need to look inwards in order to repair, and women, above all else, need to look out for one another, full stop.  Only then might things have the potential to finally change.

Niki Hatzidis is an actor and award nominated playwright based in New York City.

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