JewPlay: The Future of Jewish Theater is in the Past

The series of #JewPlay posts that recently ran on HowlRound have had me regretting my relative absence from the Jewish Theater scene for the past decade. There’s been a lot of good work done during that time, and with the exception of what was happening in my backyard at Theater J, I’ve missed most of it. That’s not to say I regret the decisions I’ve made that charted my personal and professional course for the past ten years or so – a time period during which my wife and I had twins and she was able to publish four books (one nonfiction and two novels and another novel coming this spring). I had the opportunity to run a major film festival, program and meet major authors, commission new scores to old silent films – lots of creative and rewarding work, a lot of deep thinking about the roles and uses of Jewish culture, but not much personal theatrical output. But as the old Yiddish saying goes, “You can’t dance at two weddings with one tuches,” and while I was dancing at a special and unique wedding, that doesn’t mean I’m not curious about that which made the other wedding special and unique. We can always wish for an additional tuches.

When I was last on the scene I was making profoundly Jewish theatre. My play Miklat told the story of a ba’al t’shuvah – a newly observant Orthodox Jew – whose parents come to Jerusalem to try and retrieve him on the eve of the first Gulf War. It was a comedy but it also tried to ask serious questions about faith, the depth of identity and whether those of us who reject fundamentalist religion are also brave enough to embrace a principled atheism. It struck a nerve with audiences and had a successful run at Theater J, (where I was the Associate Producer) as well as at theaters in Atlanta, Minneapolis and Palm Beach. Why it never made it to New York, I’ll never know. Something about the new play “pipeline” at the time flowing in one direction from New York?

A dozen years later I’m entering a new phase in my professional life and I’m lucky to be able to return to playwriting in a serious way as a participating artist in Theater J’s Locally Grown Festival. The play I’ll be work-shopping, To Kill a King tells the story of the 1968 Sanitation Workers Strike that brought Martin Luther King to Memphis, Tennessee where an assassin’s bullet found him on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. What attracted me to this story was not its heroes – the sanitation workers, whose story has been well told in other ways, nor its primary martyr, MLK who has been the subject of numerous dramatizations. What interested me, and what makes it a Jewish play are three more ambivalent figures who sit at the center of the drama – Mayor Henry Loeb, a former Jew and recent convert to Christianity, in-league with old-line segregationists who stonewalls the strikers and refuses to negotiate; Jerry Wurf, the President of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees who is representing the strikers and Rabbi James Wax, leader of Memphis’ reform synagogue who at different times during the strike served as a reluctant mediator, a prophet predicting disaster, an opponent of public confrontation with the mayor, and ultimately the moral conscience of Memphis who engages in a profound act of public protest. For each of these characters, how they behave in accordance or in opposition to their perception of their Jewish identity has tremendous consequences, not only for themselves, but also for the outcome of the strike, and the course of American history.

The American Century of prosperity has been accompanied by the rise of the most successful, secure and accepted Jewish community ever. In many ways the history of America over the past 75 years is the history of the Jewish community – and that history, with its myths and misconceptions deserves dramatic re-examination. Just as our brethren in Israel are confronting their foundational narratives to unearth the deeper truths necessary to move forward, so too must Jewish theater seek to examine the past that is not so distant that we cannot bear some responsibility for it. When we do so, we’ll still find much to be proud of, but also ambiguities and hard decisions that may not have been the best, but the best they could do.

Just as it is ridiculous to say that we are living in a post-racial era, similarly it is nonsense to expect that we are in a post-ethnic era – in both instances the racial and ethnic landscape has gotten more complex, more nuanced, less easily stereotyped, but to deny the existence of the geography is folly. How we draw on our history, chauvinistically or with compassion and sober honesty will go a long way to determining our future. That as I see it is one of the great challenges for Jewish theater, one that gives it relevance and one that invites a multiplicity of voices necessary to tell the perpetually unfolding story.

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