By David K. Shipler
One year ago, the Jewish Community Center in Washington, D.C.—an otherwise estimable institution—summarily fired Ari Roth, its internationally respected artistic director, who over 18 years had built the center’s Theater J into an inventive forum of dramatic ideas. Roth was compelled by his family history and his creative sensibilities to reach across difficult lines of difference. He did not shrink from putting hard issues before Washington audiences, but always with a strain of hopefulness. He did not like leaving people in despair.
He did not like leaving himself in despair, either, and in less than a year began a new theater company, appropriately named Mosaic, which is now assembling the polished pieces of diverse experiences into a thematic first season of ambitious plays. In a country and a world that is dangerously polarized, he is searching for paths to healing by looking clear-eyed at momentous conflicts and personal sorrows. Fine art does that. Art filtered by politics does not, and that’s where Roth’s expansiveness collided with the JCC’s timidity.
Essentially, Roth infuriated shallow-minded conservatives by staging plays that portrayed Israel as an actual country with real blemishes and impurities, not the cardboard artifice that right-wing, pro-Israel Americans have constructed in their imaginations. He produced playwrights who put history on display and allowed Arab voices to be heard. He did not censor one narrative in favor of another. He did not simplify reality but invited theatergoers to consider its contradictions and ambiguities, in the Middle East and elsewhere. And now, exiled from the Jewish theater, he is making a promising start doing the same thing on a broader landscape.
Having written about his trials in my book Freedom of Speech: Mightier Than the Sword, I’m naturally interested in following him. A disadvantage of book writing is relinquishing relationships after the last page proof is sent back to the printer. When you come to like some of the people you write about—not all, certainly—you feel bereft without legitimate reason to bother them with further questions and conversation. In Ari’s case, though, I plan on bothering him still, since I live nearby, can go to his plays, and continue to talk with him. So here is a brief sequel.
Starting a theater company is daunting. He managed enough private donations to launch, but he’ll need continuing charitable contributions and grants to continue. Typically, he told me, a theater relies on donations for 40 percent of its revenue, and on ticket sales for the rest. “We are 65 to 67 percent contributed the first year,” he noted. “It’s almost an unsustainable model,” in part because some donors—perhaps many—wrote checks to him in protest against his dismissal by the JCC. Indignation cools over time.
The good news, early, was that while he budgeted for houses that were only one-third full, they were more than half full for his first production, a big play on the Rwandan genocide, Unexplored Interior by Jay O. Sanders. Many tickets were sold at hefty discounts, though, and the play didn’t break even, probably because of an unenthusiastic review by The Washington Post’s theater critic, Peter Marks, who carries more weight in this town than the handful of other reviewers who waxed ecstatic. Nevertheless, Marks, as a decent man, surrounded his courteous criticisms with effusive praise for Ari Roth’s overall purpose and enterprise, which have now gained momentum as the season has progressed.
Like Rwanda’s genocide itself, Unexplored Interior’s fleeting scenes disrupt any illusion that life enjoys the reason of predictability, or even the assuredness of sanity. Except for Marks, reviewers tended to like the disjointed structure, the fragmented character vignettes, and the confused roughness of the script.
The next offering, which just opened, is a more coherent, beautifully written, and powerfully acted story inspired by a black teenager who was shot dead in Chicago one week after singing at President Obama’s inauguration. Ironically entitled The Gospel of Lovingkindness (yes, one word), the play traces the tangled lines of anguish that weave together the grief of two mothers—of the victim and of the shooter, also a victim in his way—as they confront the terrible hollowness of loss.
Playwright Marcus Gardley has Toni Morrison’s ear for making poetry of slang, of giving the vernacular the lilt of eloquence. And the actors on this small stage, in an intimate theater that seats only 88, have the compelling presence, the excruciating power, to stand on the large stage of America’s expansive suffering. If the task of theater is to make you feel—and to think, to witness, and to grow—this is theater at its finest.
Ari Roth grew up on Chicago’s South Side. His parents, Holocaust survivors, taught him by example to reach across boundaries. His mother, rescued repeatedly by courageous non-Jews as she, her sister, and their mother crisscrossed Europe just ahead of the Nazis, says that she learned how trauma can induce trust if you are surrounded by good people. That is one strong reason that Roth trusts people who are different from him and puts real people on stage after performances: torture survivors after Unexplored Interior, parents of slain children after The Gospel of Lovingkindness.
Later this season, he will revive his festival called Voices From a Changing Middle East, which was cancelled last year by Washington’s Jewish Community Center. The plays will include I Shall Not Hate, about a Gaza physician devoted to coexistence, staged by an Israeli director and performed by a Palestinian actor; Eretz Chadasha, on Sudanese refugees who cross Sinai into Israel to confront a mixed reception; and After the War by the Israeli playwright Motti Lerner, whose play The Admission generated the conservative campaign that led to Roth’s departure from Theater J.
The only thing that Roth appears to reject from his stage is hopelessness. He urged Lerner to put a glimmer of possibility at the end of The Admission. And the first two plays in Mosaic’s first season end with something of the same.
Unexplored Interior concludes with a scene of reencounter. The man whose grandfather was murdered stares into the eyes of the murderer in a long moment that begins, perhaps, a journey of reconciliation. But we do not know. It is left for us to imagine.At the final climax of The Gospel of Lovingkindness, the mother of the victim and the mother of the killer kneel together on the street, rubbing the pavement in circles, trying to clean the city of blood. It is left for us to imagine, and to dream.