New year, new theater company

Director Derek Goldman, standing, playwright Jay O. Sanders, far right, and the company of Unexplored Interior, during a workshop with Mosaic Theater Company, in June. PHOTO PROVIDED BY MOSAIC THEATER COMPANY 
Director Derek Goldman, standing, playwright Jay O. Sanders, far right, and the company of Unexplored Interior, during a workshop with Mosaic Theater Company, in June.

Bringing communities together is the goal of Mosaic Theater Company, the new theater company former Theater J’s Ari Roth has built out of worldwide headline-inducing controversies that rocked the landscape of the Jewish and theater communities. Now that the dust has settled, the shows must go on.

Ensconced in the up-and-coming H Street NE corridor at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, Mosaic’s inaugural season reaches into its neighborhood and out to all quadrants of the city and its surrounding suburbs, while also crossing national borders to the Middle East, Africa and beyond. It’s a season that Roth, the founding artistic director and raison d’etre of Mosaic, says, “is a conversation on race and on the concerns about social advancement, economic disparities and the things that are gritty and granular that are happening in our cities here in the United States.”

But that conversation stretches further. Roth continues: “These issues are of a piece with conversations about peace and coexistence and conflict resolution in Israel/Palestine. The issues are separate and involve different factors, [but] they are also conjoined and are central to so many of our identities here and to what is of burning importance to us.”

Roth calls this season, which he programmed in the few months following his abrupt and controversial departure from the DCJCC-supported Theater J that he helmed for 18 years, “a case for hope in a polarized world.” He adds: “What I see in this season is an alignment of values, an alignment of the need to engage in conflict navigation and resolution.”

Unexplored Interior: This Is Rwanda, a world premiere by Jay O. Sanders opening in late October, examines the Rwandan genocide through the eyes of a native son who returns to his homeland to investigate what happened to his family. It’s a familiar story for the Jewish community. The location, though, has shifted.

“The placement of this play at the beginning of our season speaks to the multiple meanings of Mosaic,” Roth says, continuing, “Mosaic being the biblical touch-point for a founding father of our [Jewish] faith and a tapestry that represents a multicultural amalgam of many different pieces.” He sees the elemental connection many in the Jewish community have to circumstances in Rwanda in 1994. “Rwanda is a place that resonates with everyone who is concerned with genocide in our time, and it is one of the tragic moments of the 20th century,” Roth says. He calls it an identity piece similar to many that Jewish artists, himself included, have felt compelled to craft in personal and communal responses to the Holocaust.

Roth, as a child of Holocaust survivors, contends that “all meaningful art in the 20th century is built on the ashes of catastrophe. It’s why we’re here. It’s how we come to celebrate our freedom, our response to all the bounty that flourishes in America.” He sees this meditation on Rwanda as a way to reach out toward the African-American community in Mosaic’s Atlas neighborhood and beyond. “This plays to an African-American community but it’s also important to what [Rwanda] means to a Jewish-American community,” he says, noting that the selection was “very intentional.”

The season progresses in December with a searing portrayal of inner-city violence with Marcus Gardley’s The Gospel of Lovingkindness, directed by the company’s resident director Jennifer Nelson. The ripped-from-the-headlines plot about a young man who is invited to the White House only to be gunned down in a street crime back at home in Chicago three weeks later feels close to the bone in light of the District’s recent rising homicide wave. The work featuring an all African-American cast asks audiences to consider: “What are the forces in the family and the society that cause this to happen?” says Roth. “We’re seeing life within the black community and the frustrations of that and the rallying cry with aspirations to have the community transcend its tragedy.”

From January through April Roth’s signature Voices From a Changing Middle East Festival returns with five new or new-to-D.C. works digging into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, among them one familiar to Washington. Wrestling Jerusalem had three earlier work-in-progress showings with its creator and performer Aaron Davidman, including a 2007 Theater J commission. It’s an account told through multiple voices in Davidman’s journey to understanding the complexities of identity, history and social justice embedded in the conflict is both moving and startling.

Davidman, who plays 17 characters, made numerous research trips to Israel and listened closely to the voices of American Jews in discussing Israel, Palestinians and the conflict. Roth says, “The play looks at how a progressive American Jew gets caught in the middle of the shrillness of Israel as a political hot potato.” This work is programmed alongside another solo piece, I Shall Not Hate, based on the writings of a Palestinian doctor, Izzeldin Abuelaish, who lost three children in Operation Cast Lead. The
Hebrew-Arabic production — with surtitles — brings one of Israel’s top Palestinian actors to the city under the direction of Israeli Shay Pitovsky.

Pitovsky is also a co-writer on the February production Eretz Chadasha: The Promised Land, which returns Mosaic to themes of African migration, this time through Sudanese refugees who crossed into Israel legally or not. The play contextualizes refugee stories across generations and cultures and, with eight actors playing some 30 characters, it deals with the Israeli bureaucracy, political landscape and social responses as well.

Another centerpiece of the festival will be Motti Lerner’s After the War, a world premiere of the controversial playwright who wrote The Admission. This play reflects Roth’s recent experience. It focuses on an Israeli expatriate, a classical musician, not unlike Jewish conductor Daniel Barenboim who developed a renowned Israeli-Palestinian orchestra in Germany, then Spain, but faced some friction in Israel. The play centers on a revered artist with a strong attachment to Israel who becomes reviled by his county for his political and artistic choices. The fictional musician of the play is, Roth says, an analog to Barenboim, but might also be an analog to Roth. “The play acknowledges other cultural controversies where an artist might be under siege for his left-wing leanings and might provoke the ire of other stakeholders in the Jewish community,” Roth says without irony. “You can make whatever inferences you will but … there’s a very interesting meta-awareness in this family drama, where family is
divided over a prodigal son’s politics.”

The festival closes in May with a three-day run at Arena Stage of Lebanese-American playwright/performer Leila Buck’s Hkeelee (Talk to Me), a portrait of a Lebanese matriarch and a family of immigrants who move from Beirut to Bethesda. It is based on Buck’s own experiences.

Mosaic producing director Serge Seiden, who directed last season’s popular Bad Jews at Studio Theater, directs Mosaic’s first bittersweet comedy: Cori Thomas’s When January Feels Like Summer, a teenage coming of age story about love, fidelity and the struggles of going through sexual reassignment surgery.

Roth notes that this season does indeed reflect his personal, political, social, cultural and artistic choices. But Mosaic Theater represents a range of voices and experiences and will continue to in coming seasons. “I may not be part of an official community center anymore, but I’m still very much a part of the circle of the Jewish community.”

Mosaic Theater Company. Season opens with Unexplored Interior (This is Rwanda: The Beginning and the End of the Earth), Oct. 29-Nov. 29, Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H St. NE.
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