13 February 2015

The First Amendment & The Arts, Redux


On 8 May 2010, I published a post on ROT called “The First Amendment & The Arts.”  The title tells it all as far as what I was writing about.  For those who don’t already know this about me, I’m pretty much a First Amendment absolutist, as I confessed in that article.  I also professed in that blog post that I subscribe to the line from Peter Stone and Sherman Edwards’s musical 1776 in which Stephen Hopkins, the irascible Connecticut delegate to the Continental Congress, declares, when asked if he supports an open debate on “independency”: “Well, I’ll tell y’—in all my years I never heard, seen, nor smelled an issue that was so dangerous it couldn’t be talked about.  Hell yes, I’m for debatin’ anything . . . !”  

I allow for a very few, firmly defined exceptions to the precept of open debate and discussion of any topic in any forum.  Otherwise, my stand on the First Amendment and its non-governmental parallel, freedom of expression, is paramount.  For while we must allow dissident voices, even those speaking words which we despise, we aren’t indemnified from responding in kind.  Speech we don’t like, in our philosophy, not only can be answered but must be answered with more speech.  The First Amendment requires us to allow people with whom we disagree to speak freely—but it also permits (and I say it demands) the rest of us to talk back, to argue, debate, explain why the ideas being offered are bad, wrong, or despicable.  The Constitution protects the right of all citizens to say whatever they believe—but it doesn’t protect them against public disagreement, disparagement, or even opprobrium.  The Constitution doesn’t protect anyone from having her feelings hurt, so if you say something with which I disagree, I can call you a boob and an idiot and state just why I say so.  And I ought to.  What I shouldn’t do, above anything else, is to try to silence you or suppress your attempts to speak.

I contend that whether or not we like the words or ideas, we need to hear what everyone has to say on any given subject.  In support of that position, I quote from Walter Lippmann’s fine essay “The Indispensable Opposition” (1939)—which I’ve subsequently posted in its entirety, 16 November 2011—when he says that “because freedom of discussion improves our opinions, the liberties of other men are our own vital necessity.”  He compares this to paying a doctor “to ask us the most embarrassing questions and to prescribe the most disagreeable diet.”  We understand, Lippmann believed, “that if we threaten to put the doctor in jail because we do not like the diagnosis and the prescription it will be unpleasant for the doctor, to be sure, but equally unpleasant for our own stomachache.” 

I’m also reminded of something Tennessee Williams said on the subject.  He called art, including theater, “a kind of anarchy.”  He went on to clarify:

Art is only anarchy in juxtaposition with organized society.  It runs counter to the sort of orderliness on which organized society apparently must be based.  It is a benevolent anarchy: it must be that and if it is true art, it is.  It is benevolent in the sense of constructing something which is missing, and what it constructs may be merely criticism of things as they exist.

I understand this to signify that if you’re going to do art, say by running a gallery or a theater, it’s going to get messy.  A beneficial kind of messy, but art is unruly and we have to accept that if we call what we present art.  We know that—or we should—going in.

For these reasons, I found myself in an interior debate over the summary firing on 18 December 2014, of Ari Roth, the longtime artistic director of Theater J in Washington, D.C. 

Theater J is a subsidiary of the Washington DC Jewish Community Center, located at 1529 16th Street, N.W., at Q Street in the Dupont Circle neighborhood (the center’s original home since its establishment in 1925) and commonly referred to in the District as the DCJCC.  Established in 1990, the $1.6 million-budget Theater J occupies the Aaron & Cecile Goldman Theater in DCJCC’s Morris Cafritz Center for the Arts.  It was founded by playwright, producer, actor, and acting coach Martin Blank as a professional theater company “dedicated to the highest level of Jewish arts and culture” and “committed to producing innovative Jewish theater.”  It has an advisory body, the Theater J Council, of 30 members, some of whom also sit on the JCC’s 44-member Board of Directors.  The Chief Executive Officer of the DCJCC is Carole R. Zawatsky, who’s accountable to the JCC’s board and its 17-member executive committee; she was essentially Roth’s boss.  Theater J’s managing director is Rebecca Ende, an arts administrator.  (Since Roth’s dismissal, the acting artistic director of the theater is Shirley Serotsky, a stage director who was previously Theater J’s associate artistic director.) 

There is some confusion over exactly why Roth, now 54, was suddenly fired after 18 years at the troupe’s helm.  The tension between the theater’s artistic director and CEO Zawatsky and the JCC’s board goes back months, generated primarily by the reactions, both of DCJCC’s leadership and the institution’s supporters in the Jewish community of Washington, to the plays Roth was presenting at Theater J.  In 2000, he launched a multiyear series of plays called the Voices From a Changing Middle East Festival which staged plays about Israel and its regional neighbors.  Among the presentations that have generated outrage among fervent supporters of Israel have been Motti Lerner’s The Admission, a drama about an alleged massacre of Palestinian villagers by Israeli soldiers during the 1948 Israeli war for independence, and Boaz Gaon’s Return to Haifa, based on a 1969 novella by Ghassan Kanafani (1936-72), a Palestinian writer and prominent member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, that related the return of a Palestinian couple to the Haifa home they fled in 1948; both Israeli playwrights have been critical of the country’s policies. 

Lerner, a 65-year-old Sabra whose grandparents emigrated to Palestine in the 19th century, has written many plays critical of Israeli policy and politics.  He’s also written extensively for Israeli television, but starting with The Murder of Isaac, a play about the 1995 assassination of Israeli prime minister  Yitzhak Rabin, many of his plays have been rejected for production in Israeli theaters—though they’ve had considerable success in Europe (The Murder of Isaac premièred in Heilbronn, Germany, in 1999) and the U.S. (Admission, Theater J; Murder revived at Baltimore’s Center Stage, 2006).  Nonetheless, Lerner’s won several awards for his stage and TV writing, and on 1 January 2015, Peter Marks, the chief theater reviewer for the Washington Post, named The Admission one of his “10 favorite Washington theater experiences of 2014,” describing it as a “searing drama by Israeli playwright Motti Lerner that inflamed passions about the Middle East and, in the resulting political firestorm, likely contributed to the firing by the DC Jewish Community Center of the company’s artistic director, Ari Roth.”  Boaz Gaon, born in Tel Aviv in 1971, is the son of a prominent Israeli businessman.  The playwright, journalist, screenwriter, and peace activist has six plays that have been produced in Israel and the U.S.  Between 2010 and 2012, Gaon, who spent  2004-06 in the United States as a reporter for Ma’ariv, was an important part of the Israeli social protest movement, forming two grass-roots organizations, the Rubinger Forum and Beit Ha’am (Better Israel), dedicated to political change.  This fall, Gaon won a Fulbright scholarship to the Iowa Writers Workshop to participate in the International Writers Program. 

Other offerings in Voices included a March 2009 reading of Seven Jewish Children: A Play for Gaza by British playwright Caryl Churchill, a very controversial play that covers about 70 years of Jewish history in which seven unnamed Jewish adults discuss how to teach their children about complex events in Jewish history, to which the play only alludes indirectly, from the Holocaust to the creation of Israel to the 2008–09 Gaza War (also called Operation Cast Lead).  In spring 2014, Theater J planned to stage about a dozen readings of Roth’s own play Reborn in Berlin, which caused angry reactions because, Roth said, it relates the views of Turks addressing the issue of “how Muslims processed the Holocaust today.”  Lerner’s The Admission was staged in March and April and shortly after that, Zawatsky and the JCC board canceled both the workshop production of Reborn and the festival, which was ironically designated as “part of the Washington DCJCC’s new series, ‘Embracing Democracy.’”

(It shouldn’t be misconstrued that Theater J under Roth’s stewardship presented only controversial plays and plays that seem to hold Israel up to harsh scrutiny.  Indeed, according to the on-line journal The Tablet, “most of Theater J’s plays each year are set against the backdrop of America, not Israel.”  Other productions have included, for example, Tony Kushner’s Homebody/Kabul, 2004; S. Anski’s The Dybbuk, 2006; Shylock by Arnold Wesker, featuring Theodore Bikel, 2007; Arthur Miller’s The Price, starring Robert Prosky and his sons Andrew and John Prosky, 2008, and After the Fall, 2011; Neil Simon’s Lost In Yonkers, 2009, and The Odd Couple, 2010; New Jerusalem: The Interrogation of Baruch de Spinoza by David Ives, 2010 and 2012; David Mamet’s Race, 2013; David Henry Hwang’s Yellow Face, 2014; and Golda's Balcony by William Gibson, starring Tovah Feldshuh, 2014No one objected to any of those presentations, of course, so they seldom entered into the conversation.  Theater J productions have won 7 Helen Hayes Awards out of 63 nominations.)

Roth was dismissed after attempts by him and the DCJCC leadership to come to an accommodation in meetings with Roth, Zawatsky, and Rabbi Bruce Lustig of the Washington Hebrew Congregation (the Capital’s oldest synagogue), which Roth called “marriage counseling,” and the director rejected an agreement by which he’d receive a severance package worth six months’ salary in exchange for his silence on the subject of his termination.  Roth and his supporters declare that Zawatsky and the JCC took the action “for blatantly political reasons,” in the words of a protest letter signed by the artistic directors of some 60 major theater companies across the U.S.  (The signatories eventually grew to include the heads of over 90 theater troupes.)  The DCJCC statement of the departure stated flatly that Roth was “stepping down to pursue a new series of endeavors,” a characterization Roth rejects (“I was terminated abruptly,” he insists). Zawatsky, however, after stating in the announcement on 18 December that the director “has had an incredible 18-year tenure leading Theater J, and . . . leaves us with a vibrant theater that will continue to thrive,” adding that he’d made Theater J “the premier Jewish theater in the country,” did an about-face in an e-mail on 24 December, in which she denounces Roth for “a pattern of insubordination, unprofessionalism and actions that no employer would ever sanction.”  The CEO alleges that the former artistic director “continued to disregard direction” from her and the board. 

DCJCC supporters and some donors applaud the dismissal, feeling that Roth’s offerings at Theater J were anti-Israel and inappropriate for the Jewish institution.  There’d even been a campaign to deny DCJCC financial support from the Jewish community in Washington, which generated an organization that calls itself Citizens Opposed to Propaganda Masquerading as Art, formed after the Theater J readings of Seven Jewish Children, considered by some to be anti-Semitic.  Two years later, COPMA became more aggressive when Theater J produced Gaon’s Return to Haifa in January 2011.  Even though the production had been staged by Tel Aviv’s highly regarded Cameri Theatre and the Israeli government had footed the bill for the transfer, the JCC severed its association with the Peace Cafe, an after-play outlet for debate Roth had established at Theater J in 2001, during the run of Via Dolorosa, English writer David Hare’s solo play based on his own eyewitness account of the Arab-Jewish conflict.  

The Washington Post calls Theater J “one of the leading Jewish theaters in the country and one of the most important outposts for plays about Israel and its neighbors,” a status it attributes directly to Roth’s stewardship, and the Jewish Daily Forward says it’s “a nationally acclaimed group.”  The New York Times describes the company as “a rare mix of professional polish, thoughtful dramaturgy and nervy experimentation” and in American Theatre, Isaac Butler calls Theater J, under Roth’s directorship, “the nation’s most prestigious and well-known Jewish theatre.”  In January 2012, though, COPMA issued a release in which it accused Roth of “using Theater J as a propaganda platform for his political agenda to criticize Israel and promote the Palestinian narrative” and, charging that the DCJCC and the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington , the community center’s principal funder, can’t be trusted to “act as fiduciaries for the funds entrusted to them to work for the best interests of the Jewish Community,” threatened that COPMA appeared “to have few options remaining at this point other than taking our campaign [to thwart Federation and JCC funding] public” unless the organizations took some action to “address Mr. Roth’s recidivism.” 

COPMA, an organization out of the D.C. suburb of Potomac, Maryland, was not the only group that assailed Theater J’s funding or its politics.  In a letter published in the Jewish Post, the chairman of the board of the National Council of Young Israel declared: “I am dismayed at the financial support that the Federation is providing to Theatre J to subsidize the production of The Admission, a play written by an anti-Israel Israeli named Motti Lerner.”  The Jerusalem Post also denounced Roth and Theater J for its production of The Admission, a play the paper characterized as based on “a blood libel” that was disproved in an Israeli district court.   

The question seems to me not to be whether Roth’s presentations at Theater J have been challenging and even disturbing.  They clearly have been, and I doubt he or his supporters would attempt to argue with that assessment.  In fact, his statements make it obvious that that’s his intent: to voice all sides of the important issues affecting Israel and worldwide Jewry and foster debate and discussion.  (That’s where the Stephen Hopkins and Walter Lippmann references come in, of course.)  From my perspective, that’s not only a valid rationale for presenting controversial and difficult plays, but the duty of every artist and theater in a democracy.  Roth, who’s also described as “polarizing” by the New York Times and “a difficult person” by a former DCJCC board member, believes, in the words of his former company’s mission statement (which I gather he crafted): “Theater J produces thought-provoking, publicly engaged, personal, passionate and entertaining plays and musicals that celebrate the distinctive urban voice and social vision that are part of the Jewish cultural legacy.”  What he says about the kind of plays he mounts is: “The ideal always was to engage with Israel in an honest and as mature and as nuanced a way as possible to present the humanity of the people who lived there, and who lived in the midst of and on other sides of the borders, so that’s where we began.”  The director-playwright adds, “I think we should try to create a national conversation around the conflict, and we should look at the playwrights and directors who are doing work in Israel, in Palestine, in Egypt, in Syria, in Jordan and we should get the work out there.”  The point is, at least for me, that even if you disagree unalterably with everyone else’s positions on the common issues in this conflict, you have to hear what they are.  If you silence those other voices or make them hard to find and hear, you make it impossible to refute their arguments or negate their points.  That’s what totalitarian regimes do; that’s what intolerant ideologies do: they prevent people from hearing opposing views. 

(It strikes me as ironic that an organization that purports to “believe there is no place in our Jewish community centers and institutions for anti-Israel propaganda” is, in fact, promoting its own propaganda by shouting down ideas with which they disagree and privileging only those they support—or which support them and their beliefs.  Is that Orwellian or what?  Besides, who anointed them as the arbiters of what’s in “the best interests of the Jewish Community”?  I’d posit that open discussion is in their—and everyone’s—best interest!  Additionally, COPMA stands forthrightly against the movement to promote boycotts, divestment, and sanctions against Israel and has claimed that Theater J under Roth’s leadership gave aid and comfort to the supporters of the so-called BDS movement.  Yet what COPMA was calling for to force the DCJCC to rein in Roth and Theater J is, in fact, an application of BDS targeted against the community center and the theater.  Doesn’t this strike anyone else as hypocritical?  If BDS is a legit tactic for the gander, it’s a legit tactic for the goose.  And, further, when we and many other nations and institutions used the practice against apartheid South Africa, everyone applauded.  Until last month, we also used it officially against Cuba for decades—it just didn’t work.  It seems that when you’re goring someone else’s ox, BDS is great—but when it’s your ox about to be stuck . . . whoa, Nelly!

I’m not going to enter the debate concerning whether Roth’s firing was proper on the part of DCJCC or whether Zawatsky was right or wrong to take that action.  The press reportage and commentary has taken care of that perfectly adequately.  (I suspect it’s obvious from what I’ve already said here and in my other posts on freedom of expression where I stand in this instance.)  But there’s another angle to look at here.  The case of Theater J is slightly different, for instance, from what happened to the Manhattan Theatre Club in 1998 when warnings of violence caused cancelation (and subsequent reinstatement) of the theater’s staging of Corpus Christi by Terrence McNally or at the New York Theatre Workshop in 2006 when threats to the theater’s financial support caused NYTW to postpone indefinitely its announced production of Alan Rickman and Katharine Viner’s My Name Is Rachel Corrie.  Those companies were autonomous entities answerable to boards of directors, perhaps, and their patrons and donors, but with no ties to an organization like the DCJCC or its funder, the Jewish Federation.  How much fealty does an arts organization owe to its parent institution?  How much should the umbrella institution’s politics inform the art offered by the subsidiary?  In the instance of Theater J and the DCJCC, how much should Roth, essentially an employee of the community center, have followed its wishes and the instructions of Zawatsky and the JCC board?  Should the larger organization exert any pressure on the smaller one, on the argument not only that the parent institution pays the bills but that the arts affiliate is basically an arm of the principal establishment, like an academic department to a university, say.  Can the drama department of JCC University carve out its own standards and practices in opposition to or violation of those set out by the university as a whole?  As independent actors, MTC, NYTW, and Sony Pictures can make their own determinations about what art to present (and I say they all should have stood by their guns), but Theater J is a subsidiary of a larger body.  Should that relationship affect its choice of material?  And if it should, how much?  The Washington Post spells out the case neatly:

“A wonderful aspect of Jewish tradition is healthy debate,” says Stuart Weinblatt, rabbi at Congregation B’nai Tzedek in Potomac, Md.  “But ultimately, a big tent does have parameters.  It’s not inappropriate for the JCC or any institution to ask, ‘Does this play or speaker convey a narrative that helps people understand Israel’s ongoing struggle?’ There are plenty of venues willing to host productions critical of Israel. The Jewish community doesn’t need to be that place.”

Ideally, I’d say that the JCC should provide virtually complete artistic freedom for Theater J.  Aside from prohibiting actual illegal acts (calling for the violent overthrow of the United States, committing libel or slander, breaching national security, inciting violence—that sort of thing), the JCC should trust its senior employees like the theater’s artistic and managing directors to explore significant issues responsibly and with a focus on the excellence of the art involved.  The Theater J leadership, on the other hand, should feel free to exercise that freedom of expression while being mindful of—but not coerced by—their responsibility to the JCC, the same way an independent theater is cognizant of—but doesn’t pander to—the sensibilities of its community.  Realistically, however, I have to acknowledge that kind of freedom is probably impossible—mostly because of the financial relationship between a JCC and a Theater J (not to mention just plain old human nature). 

As the actions of groups like COPMA and the National Council of Young Israel show, the theater’s artistic decisions could have serious implications for the fundraising—and thus the continuing survival—of the JCC.  How do the parties negotiate that aspect of the symbiosis?  Clearly, in the instance of Ari Roth and Carole Zawatsky, they didn’t.  As Edna Nahshon of the Jewish Theological Seminary admits, “I can understand the discomfort of the J.C.C. with the material that is being presented again and again, and I can understand [Roth’s] demand for artistic freedom.”  The professor of theater concludes, “Maybe it got to a point where the material and the home don’t fit anymore.”

The monkey wrench in these gears is unfortunately the hardened attitudes of American Jews concerning their support of Israel and, particularly, the conservative government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud Party.  In a recent New York Times Magazine article, Jason Horowitz, a Times Washington correspondent, reports that progressive U.S. Jews “increasingly find themselves torn between their liberalism and Zionism and stranded in the disappearing middle between the extremes of a polarized American Jewish community.”  Horowitz quotes Rabbi Daniel Zemel, head rabbi of Temple Micah, a liberal synagogue in the Northwest section of Washington, who bristles, “In many segments of American Jewry, one is free to disagree with the president of the United States, but the prime minister of Israel is sacrosanct.”  In the Washingtonian, Alan Elsner, vice president of communications for J Street, a progressive Mid-East policy organization that supports both the State of Israel and peace, asserts that the topic “had become so toxic that institutions, people, synagogues felt they couldn’t discuss it intelligently anymore.”  What it came down to at DCJCC, in Roth’s perception, was, “No Palestinians on stage, that’s the new JCC edict let’s say . . . .” 

Unlike the opponents of McNally’s Corpus Christi and Behzti, a British play by Sikh dramatist Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti which raised hackles in Birmingham in December 2004, the pro-Israel contingent in D.C. and beyond isn’t threatening violence and death in retribution for presenting plays they don’t like.  As they did in the case of Rachel Corrie and NYTW, they’re using the power of the purse: they want to starve Theater J, through the DCJCC, of funds if it doesn’t toe their political line.  It’s still a form of censorship of ideas since the opposing forces want the theater silenced in the end, or at least cowed to the point where it presents only approved plays—what Roth might call “regressive, reactionary, complacent, or, to put it another way, celebratory” works.  As the Dramatists Guild, the professional association of stage writers, explained in its letter to DCJCC opposing the firing: “Yes, private citizens have a right to object to the plays you produce by not funding you, and no, their actions do not constitute ‘censorship’ in the strictest sense, but the bullying tactics of this group in order to impose their political worldview on the choice of plays you present must not succeed.”  Obviously, these folks don’t subscribe to Voltaire’s eminent (and apparently apocryphal) admonition, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,” which was the impetus for Lippmann’s 1939 disquisition.

But if an organized effort to quash a theater’s freedom of expression is made and has some chance of success, what’s the theater or its parent institution to do?  Last December, Sony Pictures Entertainment caved to threats against patrons and movie houses that dared to display The Interview following a cyber attack.  (The film company later released the movie in a group of independent theaters and on line, so far with no damage or injury.)   Birmingham Repertory Theatre in England and MTC in New York City both dropped plans to produce their threatened plays (though MTC reinstated the production, again with no harm done, after First Amendment and theater activists called the theater to task for its decision).  NYTW “indefinitely” postponed Rachel Corrie when Jewish contributors warned that they’d withhold donations if the play was staged.  (Rachel Corrie was never rescheduled at NYTW—the creators withdrew it—but was produced independently Off-Broadway later in 2006.  I saw this production and posted my report on ROT on 17 October 2010.  Roth presented a reading of Rachel Corrie at Theater J in 2013 and attended a performance at the Contemporary American Theater Festival in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, in 2007, where he participated in a panel discussion of the play.  Simultaneously, Theater J presented readings of Aaron Davidman’s Musings on the Parallel (But Radically Different) Lives and Deaths of Rachel Corrie and Daniel Pearl—later retitled simply Rachel Corrie, Daniel Pearl and Me.) 

First of all, the organization needs to determine diligently if the threat is credible.  It looks pretty clear that the one against Sony wasn’t, and official cyber-watchers said it probably wasn’t even before the picture company pulled the movie from distribution.  I can’t speak for the Sikh activists in Britain, but the Catholics and Christians who were exercised about Corpus Christi in ’98 didn’t manage to do any harm or disrupt the performances—other than by making MTC jump through some hoops.  DCJCC officials acknowledged that they weren’t having any problems raising funds even in the face of COPMA’s blackmail attempt, with Roth declaring in March of last year, “Best year ever.  We’ve raised over $100,000 more than we’ve ever gotten at this point in the season.”  So it seems likely that the ad hoc protest organization isn’t powerful enough to effect the Jewish Foundation’s or the community center’s finances to any serious degree.  Most agitators who attempt to stop a public display, presentation, or performance of something that aggrieves them are blowhards, at least in this country.  (We know that people were actually killed in Europe after a Danish newspaper published cartoons insulting Islam and Muhammad in 2005 and as I write this, the world is aghast at the murders in Paris last month over satirical cartoons in Charlie Hebdo.) 

Next, decide if the risk’s worth standing up for the right to express ideas freely.  MTC looked more craven than prudent when the free-expression activists finished with it after the theater decided to pull the plug on Corpus Christi.  Several artists tried to pull their work from Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture in 2010 when the Smithsonian Institution removed David Wojnarowicz’s A Fire in My Belly video after Catholic League-led protests, though contracts with the National Portrait Gallery prevented the removals, and Smithsonian Secretary G. Wayne Clough damaged his reputation and his tenure.  Sony incurred the ire of patrons, press, and Hollywood artists for its withdrawal of The Investigation and was forced to do a lot of public fence-mending and blame-dodging.  

Consider, in contrast, the 1999 case of the Brooklyn Museum of Art and Chris Ofili’s The Holy Virgin Mary:  After the opening of the city-supported museum’s Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection, then-New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani joined with several other critics—John Cardinal O'Connor, the Archbishop of New York; the president of the Orthodox Union, America's biggest organization of Orthodox Jews, Mandell Ganchrow; and William Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, among them—to denounce the exhibit publicly, focusing particularly on one work, The Holy Virgin Mary, which the critics pronounced anti-Catholic because the artist used elephant dung and cut-outs of female genitalia among his media.  Ofili, a British artist of Nigerian heritage, explained that the painting was intended as a homage and that elephant dung in his African culture is considered sacred.  Ignoring the artist’s explanations, Giuliani and his supporters tried to close Sensation and when their efforts were thwarted, the mayor tried to have the museum evicted from the city-owned building it has occupied for over a century.  All these efforts failed when the museum stood up to the bullies and took Giuliani, et al., to court.  Not only did the arts organization win the battle for free expression, but the museum and its supporters looked heroic.  (The city had even withheld BMA’s subsidy and the court ordered the mayor to restore the museum’s funding.)

Washingtonian magazine observes that “the prospect of a politically neutered company could be unappetizing to [Theater J’s] fans.”  Additionally, some artists have already pledged not to work at Theater J in response to Roth’s firing and at least one highly regarded Washington director has withdrawn from a Theater J production she was to have staged later this season because remaining involved “amounts to tacit approval of the decision to fire Ari for his commitment to civil civic dialogue,” she feels.  The cast of Theater J’s current production, Tony Kushner’s The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures, read a statement following the 19 December performance “expressing our shock and dismay at this violation of principles we cherish” and calling “on the full Board of the DCJCC to renounce the action its Executive Committee has taken.”  Kushner, who helped compose the cast’s letter, also wrote a strongly worded protest of his own earlier. 

Finally, especially for a non-profit institution that doesn’t depend on its earned income to survive, how much pressure should money—and money people (that is, deep-pocketed donors)—have on the decisions, the artistic ones in particular, of the parent body and its constituent units?  The arch-conservative, capitalist (and I deem reprehensible) Brothers Koch gave enough dough (reportedly as much as $100 million) to Lincoln Center to get the former New York State Theater renamed the David H. Koch Theater in 2008.  Should they now dictate the content of the performances presented at the theater?  Should they even have a say?  I say, no way!  No more than the Tisches get to tell NYU what to teach at the former School of the Arts just because they gave a large enough gift to buy TSOA its main building and got the school named after them in 1982.  So even if COPMA and its ilk could make a difference in the DCJCC’s funding if it didn’t dictate to Theater J in accordance with the bullies’ demands, the Zawatskys and their executive committees shouldn’t let them.  It’s the prerogative of donors to decide to whom to give and not to give, and they can make that decision on any basis they want, even political and religious.  But organizations like theaters and their umbrella institutions ought not to permit the donors to dictate their artistic policies and actions.  Not in a democracy, and especially one where a First Amendment and free expression is a fundamental right, enshrined not only in our tradition and heritage, but in our foundational law.  You don’t surrender that to a checkbook.

(Besides, getting a say in the policy decisions of an organization in exchange for money isn’t actually philanthropy—it’s a purchase.  Is that what JCC’s, churches, or universities that run arts subsidiaries are doing?  Selling their authority over content for a little ready cash?  It’s bad enough that rich donors get to put their names on everything if they give enough money; it should end there, with a hearty handshake and thanks.  Maybe Annie Oakleys and invites to galas—but not a say in the repertoire.   It irks me that David Koch has his name on a theater at Lincoln Center—or that there’s a Snapple Theatre on Times Square and an American Airlines Theatre on 42nd Street; that honor ought to go to someone who’d done something intrinsically—as opposed to extrinsically—valuable to what goes on in the building, something to advance the theater, dance, music, or art of the organization, university, or city.)

In the end, it’s a judgment call by the umbrella institution.  If actual peril is possible, obviously caution must be taken.  But if the threats and intimidations are bogus, the bloviations of self-important wannabes, take the shot.  Sony could have avoided all the bad press and name-calling—which they heartily deserved in my book—if they’d seen, as did many cyber experts, that there was little chance of actual harm (aside from what they’d already suffered from the original hack).  Both NYTW and MTC would gave come off looking more like the Brooklyn Museum, stalwart upholders of free artistic expression, than the weak sisters they appeared when they backed away from their controversial production—shows they chose, after all, because, presumably, they saw something worthwhile in the art and ideas on offer.  DCJCC and Carole Zawatsky clearly have the legal right to fire an employee (depending on the contractual obligations on which the parties signed off), but just as clearly something more was operating than just a fear of retaliation from the likes of COPMA and the fulminations of the hyper-Israeli lobby.  Stephen Stern, a long-time Theater J Council member, says, for instance, “One clear power that I agree rests with Carole is the hiring and firing of the Artistic Director, and finally she unequivocally exercised that, and is now in my view futilely searching with her ‘communications team’ for ways to justify its timing and impact.”  The problem seems to me to be within the DCJCC and its leadership, not in the outside community—or at least not just in the outside community.

I’ll close with remarks conservative commentator David Brooks made on PBS NewsHour on 9 January, two days after the terrorist attacks in Paris on the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo.  They should be taken to heart by JCC’s and other parent organizations for theaters and galleries:

And so my point for this country is that . . . if we’re going to expect, frankly Islamist radicals to tolerate offensive talk, then we have to tolerate offensive talk.  And we have to invite people to speak at our campuses who are offensive some of the time.  And we have to widen our latitude in that area.

And this should be a reminder that we have cracked down on that and we have strangled debate.  And if you are going to stand up and say I’m with Charlie, then you should also stand up at home and say, I protect people even if they offend me.


2 comments:

  1. Rick-

    My own piece on the firing of Ari Roth ran in The Arts Fuse and you may find it of interest, since it addresses the context in which the conflict occurred.

    - Ian

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    1. Ian--

      Thanks again for commenting--and for returning to ROT. I hope you'll stick around.

      I'll have a look at your coverage of the Roth-Theater J brouhaha shortly (now that I've finished the report on Annie Baker's 'John,' to be posted on 1 September).

      You also seem to have started a little conversation with Helen Kaye. I'll be curious to see what comes of that.

      ~Rick

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