Susie Davidow watched the little theater blossom.
At its start, the theater troupe did little more than 15 minutes of Shakespeare for an audience of family and friends. But over 24 seasons, Jerry’s Habima Theatre, at the Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta (MJCCA), has grown to become a regular part of metro Atlanta’s theater calendar.
The theatre company, which stages plays with casts almost totally comprised of people with special needs, has received a Suzi Bass Award, which “celebrates the best of Atlanta’s theater,” and is a two- time recipient of the National Endowment for the Arts’ Challenge America Grant.
“It’s been an amazing experience. It’s hard to put into words,” said Davidow, who at age 70 is retiring after 16 years as director of the Blonder Family Department for Special Needs at the MJCCA, which produces the theater in conjunction with the center’s Arts + Culture Department.
“They’re being appreciated, being valued. Their self-esteem, their pride, and that same feeling on the faces of their parents…Each year, people come back out and say, ‘This show was the best. How are you going to top this?’ And then we do it again.”
In March, “The Wizard of Oz” was the 24th annual production of Jerry’s Habima Theatre presented at MJCCA. The theatrical company is produced by paid professionals. whose cast is almost totally filled by actors with special needs. Autism, Down syndrome and cerebral palsy are among the challenges faced by members of the cast.
Many of the actors, who primarily come from across the north metro area, are now regulars. Being Jewish is not a requirement for joining the troupe of adults 18 and older. Most cast members have jobs or are in school, but all must commit to attending two- and three-hour rehearsals many evenings and weekends over two months.
The hard work pays off. Their performances sell out the 254-seat Morris & Rae Frank Theatre at MJCCA year after year.
Davidow, of Sandy Springs, was scheduled to retire on March 31. She was the 2017 production’s honoree for her “outstanding service” to MJCCA.
Many say she will be missed. Among them is Luke Davis, who played the Wizard this year and Shrek last year. “I love Susie,” Davis said. “She’s a great ambassador for us, and I’m proud to know her.”
The Department of Special Needs is named for its benefactors, the late Jerry Blonder, and his wife, Lois. “It’s the talent and the enormous dedication of individuals like Susie Davidow that have made the program the success it is today,” Blonder said.
Jerry’s Habima Theatre has staged productions such as “Grease,” “Guys & Dolls,” “Disco Inferno,” and “Aladdin,” among others. Sometimes their shows go on the road, said Davidow, recalling a performance of “Honk” in Blue Ridge, Ga.
“We were doing one show for the community and one the next day for school-age children,” Davidow said. “There was a lot of concern that the children wouldn’t be respectful of the actors. We did the show. …They were a phenomenal audience.”
Davidow was raised in Richmond, Va., during the civil rights movement, and during a time when Holocaust survivors were moving to the city. Her parents both had master’s degrees in social work; her father was executive director of the Jewish Community Federation of Richmond. She grew up feeling that everyone should have a voice and be recognized. She’s been happy to see that way of thinking carried forward in her two children and two grandchildren.
She worked as a special education teacher in the Cincinnati Public Schools and worked in operations at the Coca-Cola Co. in Atlanta for 12 years before taking early retirement. After that, she was off to MJCCA, where she could meld her love of Judaism with her passion for enriching the lives of people with special needs.
Davidow plans to enjoy more time with her family when she retires and has lots of volunteering in mind. “I’ve always spoken out and stood up for what I believe in,” she said. Among the groups she plans to support are The Anti-Defamation League, the American Civil Liberties Union and Planned Parenthood.
She wants to work with the special needs committee of Dunwoody’s Temple Emanu-El and would like to be a docent at Atlanta’s Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta. She also plans to stay involved with the Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta.
“I’m not walking away from that,” Davidow said. “I love the participants. I love the families.”
Photo: Susie Davidow, center, shares an onstage moment with Katherine Burnett, Shawn Wyatt and other Jerry’s Habima Theatre actors as they rehearse for their 24th annual musical production, “The Wizard of Oz.”
Photo by Phil Mosier