At a time when theater companies come and go, Jerry’s Habima Theatre in Dunwoody is celebrating a milestone. The theater kicks off its 20th season this year. What makes this theater group unique is not only its longevity. It is the only metro area theater that prominently features actors with developmental disabilities.
Habima has received critical praise for its productions during its two decades. It earned notable mention in American Theatre magazine as a theater success story and won the 2007 Spirit of Suzi Bass Award for its contributions to professional theater in Atlanta.
“Unless you have been a part of this remarkable theater over the past 20 years, it is hard to understand the magnitude of emotions that are felt by the actors, their families, and the audiences,” said Saba Silverman, Habima’s founding chairperson who has been an integral part of the theater from its inception.
Habima means “the stage” in Hebrew, and has roots in Eastern European Jewish theater in the early 20th century. Today, Habima Theatre is the national theater company of Israel and has become a model for theater companies throughout the Jewish Diaspora.
Jerry’s Habima Theatre, named for its benefactor Jerry Blonder, is a program of the Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta, located in Dunwoody. Each season it produces Broadway musicals using a handful of professional actors but primarily local actors with an array of developmental disabilities.
Reflecting on his involvement with the theater group since its beginnings, Mark Benator said, “It has meant so much to me, and to the other actors with disabilities, since there’s not another theater like this in town.”
Jerry’s Habima Theatre director Dina Shadwell explained that her actors have a range of developmental disabilities, such as autism, Down syndrome and “others that I don’t know about and don’t really care to know that they have.” In fact, no one in the theater group dwells on disabilities.
Shadwell, herself an actress, had no prior experience directing developmentally disabled actors before coming to Habima. She said these actors are no different from nondisabled actors in that all performers “are vulnerable” and need someone to see and pull out their potential.
“It’s fulfilling to see them get through opening night performance and see the audience moved,” Shadwell stated. “It’s sacred work. There’s no better high.”
Acting can be therapeutic for the developmentally disabled, according to the National Association for Drama Therapy. Research shows, the organization says, that acting benefits individuals diagnosed with autism in a number of ways, such as promoting social interaction, enhancing the understanding of nonverbal cues and increasing emotional awareness.
“It gives me such joy to see how far this theater has come in 20 years, and to witness all of the lives that have been deeply touched by it,” stated Lois Blonder, wife of the late Jerry Blonder, who succumbed in 2006 to a two-year battle against leukemia.
Jerry Blonder, 74 years old when he died, spent a lifetime constructing and managing numerous apartment buildings and multi-family housing in the metro Atlanta area. He established an endowment for the Habima Theatre when he observed the positive impact the theater had on his granddaughter’s developmental disability.
Lois Blonder expressed great pride that the theater “provides a safe place for self-expression, allowing people to be themselves and come alive on stage, without the fear of not being accepted.”
Reflecting on this milestone, Silverman recalled that 20 years ago she had to plead with her friends to buy tickets and support the theater. Today it is nationally acclaimed and a must see for metro Atlanta theatergoers, she said.
“It has gone beyond my wildest dreams, and I am so amazed and awed each time I see a performance. I leave every show with a huge smile on my face,” Silverman said.