Updated: Jan. 9, 2020
What kind of “Fiddler on the Roof” would Ari Roth put on if he were doing “Fiddler?”
Roth, sitting at a table in Politics and Prose, thinks for a second. It would be a “multi-cultural, hip-hop” version, written by “Hamilton” playwright Lin Manuel Miranda.
“You would need both African American and Jewish Americans as performers and producers,” he says, spit-balling the idea.
He continues scribbling ideas for the adaptation on a worn yellow notepad as he talks about why this kind of “Fiddler” is important. Jewish theater, he says, needs to be accessible to all Jews. And it needs to continually adapt.
“In Jewish theater, there’s less success doing the Neil Simon canon,” he said of the once mainstream Jewish theater. “The community of people who love him is winnowing away and in its place are really strong writers, writing for film and television as well as the theater. “So you might say the exciting hope for Jewish theater is that it becomes younger and hipper.”
At Mosaic Theater Company, Roth strives to produce shows by these up-and-comers. The name of the company, which just started its fifth season, comes from embracing “both the multicultural and intercultural values” that are important to Roth. Most plays focus on issues facing minority groups like the African-American, LGBT or immigrant communities.
This season will include a trilogy of plays about Emmett Till, a young African American who was murdered after being accused of whistling at a white woman. Also on the schedule is “Eureka Day,” about what happens when a mumps outbreak hits a California private school.
This year also marks the 20th annual Voices from a Changing Middle East Festival, which Roth founded while he headed Theater J at the Edlavitch DC Jewish Community Center. It eventually led to his firing in 2014.
Roth was born in Chicago, the son of Holocaust survivors. He fell in love with the theater early. A playwright himself, Jewish themes are often present in his work. One of his first plays, “Born Guilty,” based on an Austrian-Jewish journalist’s interviews with the children of Nazi and SS officials, was performed in 1990.
These days, Roth, who came to Washington in 1997, is working on a play about the controversies caused by producing plays about Israelis and Palestinians, a subject Roth knows firsthand. He calls the play, “My Brief Affair With Miri Regev, Minister of Culture and Sport for the State of Israel.”
He said that he hopes to bring it to stage next year.Washington’s Jewish theater scene is sophisticated, he says. That’s because audiences are, too.“D.C. has demonstrated an appetite for serious, Jewish, political, cultural, social drama that’s almost unparalleled,” he says. “Since I’ve been here, the appetite for schmaltz and pandering Jewish comedy and Jewish theater — the lowest common denominator — has not been the hallmark of Jewish culture. It’s been sophisticated, refined and varied.”