For those of you not up to date on the hubub about this 10 minute play, Churchill wrote this piece in response to the recent events at Gaza. It's written as just lines, with no assignment to character, but the implication is that the character or characters are Jews speaking to their children at different points in history, spanning from the Holocaust to the recent Israeli conflict. The play may be done for free by anyone, as long as they also raise funds for a Gazan charity at the same point.
My feeling about the play, which I have written about on other blogs, is that the play implicitly tries to stereotype and even demonize Jews as a whole because of Churchill's anger about Israel. It has the "Jew" who is talking to his/her child say things like "Tell her we're the chosen people" and gleefully talk about Palestinian "dead babies" and "children covered in blood". By calling it seven Jewish children, not seven Israeli children, Churchill has chosen a dangerous tactic. Not that the title is inappropriate for the play. Unfortunately.
When talking about the play with an Israeli playwright, interestingly, he told me that he thought the play should be played every day. Much of his work as a writer has protested the policies of the Israeli government, and I immediately understood why in that context he might feel that the play was important to hear.
Churchill, however, wrote this play in England, where it first played at the Royal Court (it preceded a play about the Holocaust - a disturbing choice, I find). In England, she is not voicing an unheard opinion about Gaza. She is reinforcing the prejudices of the great majority of the audience. It is no act of bravery to tell the audience exactly what they want to believe. And at a time when anti-Semitism is on the rise in England (never a comfortable place to be Jewish), I would argue that that these are unfortunate passions to flame.
After writing about my thoughts about the piece on some blogs, I got a couple of emails from Jewish theater practitioners in England. One was a professor. They thanked me for daring to criticize the piece, which they were afraid to openly speak out against in England, because of the wave of anger their objections would be met with. Churchill's play stokes that anger, making it harder for anyone to listen to a dissenting voice.
New York is a wholly different place altogether. The number of Jews here makes the city very complex in its attitudes about Israel, although if there is any place where there is a large number of critics of Israeli policy, it is in the theater. The Rachel Corrie incident demonstrated that the New York theater community is just as capable of knee jerk reactions on the subject as people are anywhere else.
Those critics were definitely the majority in the theater last night, though there was a vocal minority expressing support for Israel, and I'm sure a less vocal minority that are somewhere in the middle (as I feel I am). The program was accompanied by two interesting documents: one a letter from Churchill in response to a letter from Ari Roth from Theater J (which is also producing a reading of the play), and the other a letter from Kenneth Stern, Director of Anti-Semitism and Extremism for the American Jewish Committee.
The reading are going on for three straight nights at NYTW - last night was just the first of them. Each night has a different moderator, who is supposedly moderating the audience in a discussion. Tonight the moderators will be Tony Kushner and Alisa Solomon, a very interesting pair.
Unfortunately, last night's moderator was Lauren Flanders, the host of GRITtv on Free Speech TV, as well as the host of RadioNation. Flanders had a very clear point of view on the piece (that it would finally make people think about the crimes in Israel and the U. S. complicity in those crimes), and she had brought in people in the audience as authorities to support her point of view. She called on them to speak about what she termed the facts around the conflict, in order to educate the audience, and called on them to rebut dissenters.
Which was the main problem with the discussion. It was not about listening and conversation. It was not a discussion at all. Flanders was trying to educate (and bully a little) those in the audience that didn't see things her way. But she was doing it in the guise of a moderator, and of course that sort of "moderation" is both transparent and, in the end, even more polarizing.
But perhaps that is a problem inherent in Churchill's play, which in the end, is a polemic, written in anger. A piece that truly was meant to create empathy for the Palestinians would have Palestinians onstage, true characters with their assets and their faults, struggling in a conflict with no easy answers. This play has generic "Jews" onstage, or what Churchill imagines a "Jew" to be.
I spoke briefly yesterday about the lack of empathy in the play. I felt empathy when they were talking about the Holocaust, Flanders responded. It's true, the play does use the existing empathy about the Holocaust. But it's a ploy, saying, yes, we feel bad about the Holocaust, but you're just as bad, so now we're justified in feeling anger.
In the end, the play creates anger at Jews and anger at those promoting anger against Jews. The Palestinians, as human beings, never exist in that theater at all.
Does that get us any closer to peace?