A New Life as a Playwright, at Age 79

Playwright Carole Eglash-Kosoff
Playwright Carole Eglash-Kosoff
Courtesy of Carole Eglash-Kosoff

When she became a widow in her seventies, losing her mother, her brother and her husband in a single month, Carole Eglash-Kosoff could have been forgiven for retreating to a darkened room, for needing down time or "me" time or just grieving time.

Instead she traveled to South Africa. And wrote a book. And launched a career as a playwright.

On a recent cloudless morning, the actors for Eglash-Kosoff's first production, The Human Spirit, are gathered in her North Hollywood living room. Eglash-Kosoff, the playwright and executive producer, watches through the arch of her kitchen nook, whispering with the offstage actors and feeding them store-bought pastries.

Three women stand center stage, or what passes for a stage in the lively, wood-furnished den; two portraying oppressed black revolutionaries and the third, a posh Afrikaner-turned-activist. These are "apartheid's unheralded heroes," as Kosoff calls them, and in this scene they are piecing together a story of violence and injustice perpetrated by the white minority against the black majority in mid-century South Africa.

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The characters of Tutu, Millie, and Helen are all real people whom Kosoff interviewed in Africa, and here their monologues are transformed into a piece of metatheater, where the characters break the fourth wall and address the audience directly. Kosoff mentions the influence of Bertolt Brecht, but this play has a warm humanity to it. It's earnest, idealistic, and a little bit angry -- true to the playwright's spirit of passionate activism.

At 79, Kosoff is one of those women of invisible steel. She has a low, Bacall-esque voice and a direct manner, speaking confidently about the things that are important to her: in this case racial intolerance. "When you get down to the nitty gritty, its just stupid," she says. "It makes no sense." Kosoff has built a late-life career of writing books that challenge that stupidity head on, from an analysis of the voting system to a sweeping romance novel about an interracial couple.

A long-time Californian, Kosoff has dabbled in business, history, and fashion -- at one point, she owned the only button factory in the western United States. But despite her lifelong desire to write, The Human Spirit, published in 2010, at 76, was her first book. (She's since published four more.)

She originally traveled to South Africa in 2006, as a way of dealing with the "nutty" coincidence of losing three people with whom she was close in just one month.

"I was trying to figure out what to do with my life. I'm not very good at just filling space. And then there was this commercial on NPR from American Jewish World Service, looking for volunteers. So I called them up and said 'Can you handle an old broad who's a bad Jew?'

Kosoff was assigned to Capetown as a volunteer -- the Jewish non-profit provided her plane ticket, in coach, but she was left to cover her own housing and meals. She contributed by teaching business principles to non-governmental organizations, and realized that, decades after the dismantling of apartheid, the oppressive system still left a crippling effect on the community. The AIDS epidemic, too, had ravaged the country.

"They lost an entire generation," she says, "so these orphans had to be raised by grandparents, who didn't have any skills raising kids in the post-apartheid era. There was a lot to get done."

That was when she met the Mamas, a group of South African women who'd risked their lives to defy the security police and help those in need, opening makeshift schools and hospitals without permits. The play is based on Kosoff's interviews with these women, with certain stories coming to life in scenes and tableaus. Some of the material is very heavy. There is a rape scene, and a devastating monologue where a man mourns the murder of his son. But here the tears are necessary to "invade the white mentality" of passivity and erasure.

This isn't Kosoff's only project in the pipeline, nor her only subject of interest. She is just as happy talking about Rutherford B. Hayes and the closest election in U.S. history, the civil rights movement, or her experience with fashion retailers in the 1970s and '80s. She reveals a full color drawing of a man snorting cocaine off a sleek woman's thigh -- a mock-up cover for her next book, Sex, Drugs, and Fashion.

On stage, though, Kosoff's subject is apartheid, and she believes the timing couldn't be better, citing Nelson Mandela's current prominence in the media -- he has a biopic coming out this fall -- as well as his dwindling health. The 95-year-old president may die soon, and before that happens Kosoff wants to shake up the affluent white community and remind them why this all matters.

The Human Spirit premieres at the Stella Adler Theater on September 26 and runs through September 29. Tickets are $20.

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