Taking Stock of the Week that Was – And the Festival That Concludes Tonight

It’s been a historic week of dialogue at Theater J, triggered by three extraordinary works, that brings to a close a most fulfilling Voices From a Changing Middle East Festival with tonight’s final performance of BENEDICTUS. Last Sunday afternoon we spoke with Ambassador and former American hostage in Iran, John Limbert, one of our consultants on the production of BENEDICTUS and now a professor at the US Naval Academy who, because of all the time he logged with us in prior conversation, became a lynchpin in helping us get so many of the details right in our production.

The next night, last Monday, we were on stage with Ambassador and professor Akbar Ahmed following the extraordinary rendition of his memoir monologue, WAZIRISTAN TO WASHINGTON: A MUSLIM AT THE CROSSROADS. The play, in perhaps its 10th iteration over the past year, broke through to become, even more than AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH-inspired lecture on the coming crisis (in nuclear armed Pakistan by way of violent spill-over from Afghanistan), a moving odyssey of a man losing his culture, his home, his father, and finding a new cause, a new partner in dialogue and a new country to engage in urgent discourse. I was so proud of the creative team that helped work with Akbar in realizing this multi-media revelation.

On Wednesday and Thursday, Caryl Churchill’s play came home to roost in our center, and with it, protestors, response plays, critics and mad bloggers, and wonderfully engaged, divided, but mostly appreciative audience members. Press coverage was comprehensive and I, in the end, failed to keep up with all the posts coming in from local and national points. An important overview appeared in the Washington Jewish Week that accurately summarized Jewish community frustration (in certain circles) and quoted me, again accurately, in discussing the controversy, why we went forward with it, and how we go about picking a season. Check out the article, if only for the wonderful headline and follow-up sub-header, “‘Intellectual protection for the Jewish community’ – Theater J defends controversial play; offers companion readings to add context.”

And then the show went cross town to Forum Theatre, where I sat out some discussions to be with family on Friday night, and then to facilitate an extraordinary dialogue between BENEDICTUS author Motti Lerner and co-creator Mahmood Karimi Hakak. This was an unexpectedly candid, revealing talk about the politics of collaboration — about how two men so close could help to fashion a work so disturbingly unsettling in its unhappy resolution. We talked about the function of art — about the importance of catharsis in triggering both emotional identification and activating an impulse to respond constructively. And in that conversation, we heard at length from former Defense Secretary and Senator from Maine, William S. Cohen who shared geo-political insights and lent hope in discussing our new US president’s outreach to both the Persian and Arab worlds.

Sunday I returned to Churchill-land at Forum for a final 7JC presentation and discussion in the H Street Theatre lobby — a wonderfully different setting and context to lend yet another new perspective on Churchill’s Rorschach of a playlet. And finally, more conversation on stage today discussing Iran with Mahmood Karim Hakak and Robert Babayi in an utterly candid discussion–even more eye-opening discourse on how Iranians perceive Israel and America–moderated by WAZIRISTAN adapter/director Stephen Stern.

I merely list the number of discussions convened this week and almost none of the content, though this will (or at least should) be recorded too. But for our purposes here, with minutes remaining before we begin our final performance of the festival, let us say that we have listened and we have learned and we have explored not only Israel and Palestine, but Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the way it touches our lives. (We miss Shirley, our discussion recorder and director of Public Programming, busy rehearsing the wonderful Sam Forman comedy, THE RISE AND FALL OF ANNIE HALL, which will soon be taking us in a very, very different direction).

I stop now to say thank you to hundreds (if not thousands) of new blog readers who made their way to this site over the past month. And to tell you that we feel privileged, honored, and proud to have seen this festival through to a successful finale. We made good art, we engaged in important civic discussion, we ended in the black (okay, we’re a little black and blue too) and we’re looking forward to much more of this kind of art and dialogue in the years to come. Thank you, all…

One thought on “Taking Stock of the Week that Was – And the Festival That Concludes Tonight

  1. Here’s a British response to Caryl Churchill:
    , from Normblog (via Engage site):

    “Tell them it’s a play
    Tell them it’s serious
    But don’t enlighten them
    Tighten them
    Put some night in them.
    Tell it in the voice of Jews
    Tell it only in the voice of Jews
    That way any bad thought will be the thought of Jews
    (Like that ‘they’ don’t understand anything except violence).
    And any thought ascribed to others will be ascribed by Jews
    And not necessarily true,
    And maybe just an excuse (Like that there are still people who hate
    Jews).
    And any bad deed ascribed to others will be merely ascribed by Jews
    (Like that ‘they’ set off bombs in cafés)
    And ascribed maybe as a pretext.”

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