Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Social Conscience in Jewish Theater

Here's a short essay I wrote that recently appeared in the Association of Jewish Theater's newsletter:

Should theater ask questions or give answers? Theater has always served as a vehicle for social conscience, and it seems natural that Jewish theater should take a particular interest in social issues. But how should theater in general and Jewish theater in particular, approach these issues?

In his keynote address at the AJT conference in Detroit, Gordon Davidson spoke of one of his most electrifying theater moments: watching a performance of protest play, raw with the issues of the moment. If someone had told that audience to march in protest, he said, they would have stood up and marched. There is a place for theater that steps back and reflects at a distance, he said, but there is also a place for theater that reacts, immediately and with great passion, in the moment.

This was clearly a theater of answers—and the answer was to act. As much as a speech in a crowded hall or a rally in a public square, theater can be an immediate call to action. And yet…as exciting as a call to action can be, part of me distrusts it.

The conference was full of calls to action and plays of social conscience, more so then I have seen in the past. Ellen Schiff and Julius Novick gave us a history of them—or rather, they gave us the history of Jewish theater, which, I was reminded, has been filled with playwrights from Odets to Rice to Miller to Kushner. And the Jewish Ensemble Theater treated us to a scene from Women’s Minyan, an Israeli play which is a call against domestic violence, among other social agendas.

Yet I wondered whether the segment from Women’s Minyan we viewed wouldn’t have been more effective if it hadn’t been as one sided. The abuser in the play turns out to be guilty of a host of other crimes, from homosexuality (considered a crime in the ultra-orthodox community where it is set) to incest. As the shocking revelations continued, I wondered what the play would have been like, had it examined the story of a man who had one crime alone, but was otherwise good. Is being a wife beater only to be condemned when it is accompanied by perceived sexual perversion?

Daniel Kahn and Psoy Korolenko demonstrated a history of Jewish calls to action in their music, performed a little later in the conference. There were Communist calls to action, Zionist calls to action, anti-Zionist calls to action, and a host of other isms, some ephemeral, some lasting. Perhaps most effective in their impressive array of Yiddish tunes was one called “Dumia,” a Zionist call to action that could now be read as a Palestinian call to action.

Each of the songs was a perfect, impassioned, representation of the feeling of those who wrote it. But what made “Dumia” so effective is it gave two sides of an argument, with equal passion, simultaneously. It was not a simple call to action but a dialogue within a single song.

To me, that is what theater does best. It presents arguments, not just for the sake of a single agenda, but also to create empathy and understanding of those whose opinions and beliefs are in complete opposition. Answering a question with a question is more than a punch line to a Jewish joke, it is a Talmudic tradition. Because truly, there are no complete answers.

But that power of the call to action—it’s undeniable. When Davidson spoke, I could envision myself in the audience. I knew the power he was talking about, and I wanted it in my theater. And Detroit is a city that calls for action. It is a city that has old money splendor literally right next to squalor. I could not help but notice that the incredibly gorgeous theater we visited in the city was in a neighborhood filled with old, abandoned houses, marks of the city’s poverty and decline.

Brothers and sisters, should we not arise and speak out against this injustice? Should we not put down our scripts and instead march into the Mayor’s office and say we are here, and we are not leaving until something, anything is done?

Or should we put on a play?

That’s a question to which I have no answer. Perhaps I should be marching. But instead, I write, I try to understand, and I hope.

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