by Isaac Butler
For the third time since this blog's creation, Washington, D.C.'s Theater J has in some way backed down from or reconsidered a controversial play:
Plans for the English-language world premiere of a controversial Israeli play at Theater J in March have been scaled back. The action follows a flurry of activity, including a protest group’s campaign against the play that raised concerns that the production would hinder donations to the institution that houses the theater company.
Officials at the D.C. Jewish Community Center (DCJCC), where Theater J performs and gets other cost-defraying support, in tandem with Theater J’s artistic director, Ari Roth, have decided to pull back “The Admission” from a 34-performance, full-production run in March. It will now be presented in what they are describing as a “workshop” run, lasting 16 performances, in proposed repertory with “Golda’s Balcony,” a biographical play about the late Israeli prime minister Golda Meir.
Really, read the whole article. It's astonishing. I'll still be here when you're done.
The first time this happened, Theater J "contextualized" a public reading of Caryl Churchill's "Seven Jewish Children" by including three separate response plays and a discussion with a man who was saved from the Holocaust by fleeing to British Mandate Palestine. Then, amidst protests by Elie Wiesel, a play about Bernie Madoff by Deb Margolin was rewritten and postponed. I've written about both of these incidents in the past (here, here, here and here amongst other places).
If you read those links, you'll see a lot of emotions on my part ranging from disbelief to fury over Theater J's actions in these matters.
But my perspective on all three of these incidents has changed. I feel very differently now than I used to. I no longer feel angry at Theater J, or at Artistic Director Ari Roth (whom I have come to know a bit since those posts linked above). I feel, instead, saddened and disappointed, but not at the people or for the reasons that you might think.
First, I feel disappointed and saddened because I am someone who has argued for years in favor of both culturally specific theaters and theaters being more deeply rooted in their communities as potential solutions for some of the ongoing problems plaguing the American theater. Any solution, of course, will create its own new problems. I know that. That's the way of the world.
But it's still disheartening to realize that one of the side-effects of doing this might be that our theater gets more conservative, and less challenging, because the communities it is rooted in have certain lines they will not permit their theaters to cross. Looking at Theater J, I no longer see a theater that lacks the courage of its convictions. I see instead a theater attempting again and again to push its community on a core and controversial knot of issues (Isreal, Palestine and Zionism) and finding itself threatened for it every time.
I actually have come to kind of admire Theater J's stubbornness in trying to find ways to push their community, even as it keeps blowing up in their faces. As much as I want them to never back down, the pragmatist in me recognizes that they are deeply tied in to a very well organized and well led fundraising community and housed by an organization that's explicitly Zionist in its views. I don't think there's enough said about what a difficult situation that is, and how it's only gotten more difficult as Americans have hardened and shifted rightward in their beliefs on Israel.
Thus, it also saddens and disappoints me greatly to see my fellows Jews banding together to stop other Jews from airing a point of view that they disagree with. But this is of a piece with our recent history. Liberal Jews have long pointed out that within Israel a far more robust debate about Zionism, its history, and the actions of the Israeli state is possible than within America. The kind of op-eds that regularly appear in Ha'Aretz would never get published by a mainstream newspaper. In fact, one third of American rabbis won't truthfully and openly discuss their views of Israel, for fear of "significant professional repercussions," according to a recent poll (full report here).
What's happening to Theater J is another example of this phenomenon. Both "The Admission" and "Return to Haifa," a controversial play Theater J put on two years ago, were written by Israeli Jews. The fact that we in the States are to be "protected from" the art of Israeli Jews because it does not cohere with our Zionist consensus is as hilarious as it is despicable. If hardline Zionists are right (obviously I don't think they are) then there shouldn't be any problem or threat in hearing from a different viewpoint. We have a rich history of argument in our culture. One of our core literary traditions-- the Midrash-- is based on it. The fact that a play with a particular POV on 1948 cannot be seen unless it is not a real production and is paired with a glowing bioplay of the woman who said that there is no such thing as a Palestinian people is a shanda fir de goyim.
UPDATE: My friend Andy Horowitz from Culturebot noted that he found the term "culturally specific" to be offesnive, as all theatre is to some extent culturally specific and it only gets applied to work that isn't White/Western European. I agree with him that the term is a bit clumsy, but I didn't invent it. While I am unsure of its origins, it's in fact a term i heard for the first time at Arena Stage's Diversity Convening, and heard again at Arena's Black Playwrights Convening, as a term meant to enlarge our understanding of (there's really no good word to use here is there?) uh, "identity based"(?) theater beyond, say, the Negro Ensemble Company. (Here, to take one example, is Ma-Yi Theater's "about" page, which uses the term.)
In other words, it was a term of art I learned from practitioners of what gets called Culturally Specific Theater, which is why I felt okay using it. Language--and particularly Jargon-- is something that constantly evolves. So the term Culturally Specific Theater, which is a term that seeks to recognize the commonalities of and intersectionality between groups doing whatever you want to call this kind of work, may in fact be past its sell-by date and need to be replaced with a term that also recognizes that most Durang plays are culturally specific work in their own right.