At a time when Jewish theater artists — playwrights, directors, designers and performers — are more deeply involved in the American theater than ever before, we ask ourselves: What is the purpose of a culturally specific Jewish theater? What needs do we fulfill?
To entertain people. To stir their passions. To call attention to transformative works by Jewish and Israeli playwrights — programmed alongside plays by non-Jewish writers that ask relevant questions about identity, community and humanity. To bring together the people of a neighborhood, and of a city, to experience art together.
But, should there be more to it than that? As we set out to plan a new season for Theater J at the Washington DCJCC, we naturally had to ask ourselves: Who are we? Or perhaps more accurately, who are we now? Are we the same theater we have always been or something different? Can we still tackle difficult questions as we have in the past, or should we focus on content that is less likely to stir debate?
When putting together a season of plays, we want to take the audience on different journeys over the course of the year. I want them to be inspired, feel enlightened and, yes, I want to challenge their thinking.
A touchstone that guided us in selecting next season’s shows is that “the personal is political,” a concept which came out of the second wave of the women’s movement. It articulated a defense against those who claimed that women who were speaking out loud for the first time about the oppressions they faced in the home, the workplace and the social sphere were really in need of therapy, not policy change. In recognizing that personal battles were deeply intertwined with larger political issues, the movement was able to move from experiences and feelings to action. It was a truly galvanizing idea.
I feel the same way about theater. A character’s personal journey reveals something deeper and truer, and often something greatly in need of examination, about the world. Experiencing the personal allows us to activate our own individual sense of the political; it forces us to articulate the important questions ourselves, and in doing so, we hope, to move toward action.
So, in case there is any doubt, we will continue to ask big questions, on stage with our productions, at panel discussions and talkbacks. We will continue to provide a nurturing environment so playwrights, directors, designers and actors can continue to achieve at the height of their craft. This will come as a disappointment to those who have lashed out at Theater J in recent years, but our change in leadership in no way represents a retreat from taking on difficult questions — whether about race, sexuality, gender, faith or Israel.
We will turn a personal lens on the political. We will face the horrors of war as markers in the life of acclaimed photojournalist Paul Watson. We will witness the specific and wrenching effect that the cycle of violence and loss that has played out in the Middle East for decades has on families in that part of the world. We will spend time with characters of different generations who are facing crises of health and identity. We will live through the tumultuous 1960s as viewed through the eyes of a young African-American girl coming of age, and coming into her own sense of political activism, during the Civil Rights Era.
All of this brings me back to my original question. Will we still take on the difficult questions? Yes, we will.
Providing a forum to tackle the issues most central to our community is part of who we are, and that will never change.
Shirley Serotsky is acting artistic director of Theater J in Washington.