Asking Big Questions in Washington Jewish Week

Last week an OpEd by our Acting Artistic Director, Shirley Serotsky, ran in Washington Jewish Week, exploring our role as a Jewish theater, the thought process for planning the 2015-2016 season and what we’ll be exploring on our stages.

film, jewish week
The purpose of a Jewish theaterDisplaying
July 15, 2015

At a time when Jewish theater artists — playwrights, directors, designers and performers — are more deeply involved in the American theater than ever before, we ask ourselves: What is the purpose of a culturally specific Jewish theater? What needs do we fulfill?

To entertain people. To stir their passions. To call attention to transformative works by Jewish and Israeli playwrights — programmed alongside plays by non-Jewish writers that ask relevant questions about identity, community and humanity. To bring together the people of a neighborhood, and of a city, to experience art together.

But, should there be more to it than that? As we set out to plan a new season for Theater J at the Washington DCJCC, we naturally had to ask ourselves: Who are we? Or perhaps more accurately, who are we now? Are we the same theater we have always been or something different? Can we still tackle difficult questions as we have in the past, or should we focus on content that is less likely to stir debate?

When putting together a season of plays, we want to take the audience on different journeys over the course of the year. I want them to be inspired, feel enlightened and, yes, I want to challenge their thinking.

A touchstone that guided us in selecting next season’s shows is that “the personal is political,” a concept which came out of the second wave of the women’s movement. It articulated a defense against those who claimed that women who were speaking out loud for the first time about the oppressions they faced in the home, the workplace and the social sphere were really in need of therapy, not policy change. In recognizing that personal battles were deeply intertwined with larger political issues, the movement was able to move from experiences and feelings to action. It was a truly galvanizing idea.

I feel the same way about theater. A character’s personal journey reveals something deeper and truer, and often something greatly in need of examination, about the world.  Experiencing the personal allows us to activate our own individual sense of the political; it forces us to articulate the important questions ourselves, and in doing so, we hope, to move toward action.

So, in case there is any doubt, we will continue to ask big questions, on stage with our productions, at panel discussions and talkbacks. We will continue to provide a nurturing environment so playwrights, directors, designers and actors can continue to achieve at the height of their craft. This will come as a disappointment to those who have lashed out at Theater J in recent years, but our change in leadership in no way represents a retreat from taking on difficult questions — whether about race, sexuality, gender, faith or Israel.

We will turn a personal lens on the political. We will face the horrors of war as markers in the life of acclaimed photojournalist Paul Watson. We will witness the specific and wrenching effect that the cycle of violence and loss that has played out in the Middle East for decades has on families in that part of the world. We will spend time with characters of different generations who are facing crises of health and identity. We will live through the tumultuous 1960s as viewed through the eyes of a young African-American girl coming of age, and coming into her own sense of political activism, during the Civil Rights Era.

All of this brings me back to my original question. Will we still take on the difficult questions? Yes, we will.

Providing a forum to tackle the issues most central to our community is part of who we are, and that will never change.

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Reporting from First Rehearsal of The Call

I have been procrastinating, avoiding and downright refusing to blog for years. But with a new year, a new blog and a new show in rehearsal, 2015 seems like the time to get over my trepidation about sharing in such a public forum.

Last Monday was the start of the rehearsal process for The Call, a new play by Tanya Barfield. I read the script a few times during the season planning process last season, so I wasn’t expecting to be as moved by the first read as I was. Something about hearing it out loud made it much more resonant for me.

TheCall at Playwrights Horizons

Playwrights Horizons’ 2013 production of The Call. Kelly AuCoin, Eisa Davis, Crystal A. Dickinson, Kerry Butler. Photo by Jeremy Daniel.

When Tessa Klein, as Annie, lashes out with “Three years of drugs, of doctors – my body /lost babies” my eyes well-up with tears. Not because it’s an experience I have experience with personally, but because through Tessa’s vulnerable but resilient voice, I could feel what she must be feeling.

In grappling with America’s relationship with Africa – the devastating impact of AIDS, the overwhelming poverty, the experience of being an American tourist and volunteer – the reading also stirs up my own conflicted feelings about my time as a volunteer in Ghana. I was there for a week to help repair schools and attempt to promote safe sex and education to high school students. Although it was an amazing experience for me, I am sure I got more good out of it than anyone in Ghana. Just the amount of money I spent to get there could have done far more for the students in Ghana than I managed to do.

I have a feeling that every time I see this relatively compact play that manages to dive into so many issues, it’s going to bring up different feelings for me. Director Shirley Serotsky kept saying in her remarks that this is a “story for our modern times,” and indeed it feels that way to me – relevant in ways I hadn’t even expected.