The Art Will Win Out: In The Midst Of Much Media & Extracurricular Brouhaha, Theater J Keeps Its Focus on The Work

There’s another bundle of press pieces fresh out over the past few hours, extolling THE CHOSEN, promoting PHOTOGRAPH 51, giving voice to the infamous, now-widely circulating COPMA letter (“Citizens Opposed to Propaganda Masquerading as Art” – don’t look for a website, there isn’t one) and other “watchdog” group agitations against local Jewish Federations and JCCs, along with today’s naming of Theater J and its artistic director as the Best Fount of Theater Controversy as part of its new BEST OF DC 2011 issue.

Exhausting distractions on the one hand — but the work on stage is what counts — it’s where we’re putting our labors — and the results are there for all to behold.  Shall we enumerate?

Last night saw the first preview of Anna Ziegler’s PHOTOGRAPH 51, which opens Monday (and that opening is—who’d have thunk it—SOLD OUT!). The play’s in great shape and the production is taking advantage of the extra preview time we’ve allotted for it (not wanting to open on Sunday night as we normally might, while THE CHOSEN is closing across town at Arena) by continuing to experiment with an ambitious sound and lighting design reinforcing the prismatic, multi-layered re-telling and re-enactment of the life and impact of Rosalind Franklin upon a cadre of her male colleagues. The major gleaning from last night is just how much the audience comes to rally behind Rosalind early in this play, as the renown scientist arrives at Kings College with the simple request that she be addressed by her new colleagues as “Dr. Franklin” but everyone, repeatedly, continues to address her as “Miss Franklin.” And to watch her spine increasingly stiffen as she is slighted and shunted to the side even as her own independent work ethic helps to isolate her in the collaborative field of scientific investigation, we come to sense the tremendous burden and challenge that Franklin felt trying to realize her ambitions in Cambridge. The play is interweaving comedy and tragedy, social commentary and character study, and its high design concepts and literary concision (the play run 86 minutes and a few extra seconds) makes for a compressed, complex, extremely high-quality jolt of scientific and theatrical time-travel. We can’t wait to see what preview #2 has in store for us tonight!

And we can’t help but share what a winning collaboration this has been between playwright Anna Ziegler, director Daniella Topol, and the team of talented designers and actors. This feature in The Post’s Weekend Magazine section is but the first of several interesting features coming out; last night Voice of America video-recorded 30 minutes of the performance for use in an upcoming feature. And the big news this morning, while this posting is composed, is the new opening adjustments being sent out by our playwright to the company, and the list of fixes on a worklist composed by our director.

“Two steps away,” is the mantra in the play, as the race to discover the secret of life–mapping the contours of DNA–heats up. Two artistic steps away…

Across town at our production of The Chosen at Arena Stage, The Forward takes in our production and offers a review interlaced with interview–a most New Yorker-like treatment–and then allows for a second piece on its blog, The Arty Semite.
Here’s the one, “Chosen Again, To Go Onstage: Chaim Potok’s Classic Comes to the Capital’s Fichandler Theater”

and then this post as well, “Choosing ‘The Chosen,’ on Stage and Screen” by Jenna Weissman Joselit who’ll be our post-show panelist on Sunday, March 27 at 5:15 pm, on our final day of performances.

On the front pages of The Forward, we move from art that heals and unifies to art that does the same for some, but also winds up triggering much more difficult conversation, controversy, and ultimately, a call for defunding, generally from those who haven’t seen the work, haven’t heard a word of the discussion, but are adept at doing oppositional research. Such are the achievements of COPMA, “Citizens Opposed to Propaganda Masquerading as Art — the local D.C.-area organization seeking to rein in Theatre J has staged protests in the past outside the JCC. Its members met when they were active in a watchdog group that monitored The Washington Post’s coverage of Israel. A few are also active in the organization Holocaust Museum Watch.”
Read the article, “JCCs Are a New Front in the Culture War on Israel Centers in D.C. and N.Y. Criticized for Showing Controversial Films, Plays” by clicking here.

It’s not a well-enough written, nor well-enough documented article, even though the journalist conducts an excellent interview and has culled a lot of material. Too often, as with his last article on the firing of Washington Jewish Week’s editor Debra Rubin, Guttman takes an important subject but doesn’t quote precisely. So be it. This won’t be the last article on this subject at all and, as I told Guttman on Monday, “The Art will win out.”

I also told him that “Theater J is not a political organization; we produce, present and develop art that reflects multiple representations of the world and then we convene conversations that build bridges between diversely assembled panels and audience members.” I told him that “Our COPMA critics haven’t attended a single production or conversation about the art… They “cherry pick and radically overlook the extraordinary, positive achievements of our post-show panelists and their commitment to peace-building efforts and coexistence.”

You won’t read that in The Forward article. But it will come out elsewhere; that “Theater J reaches out to engage the orthodox Jewish community as well as the secular, the liberal, the conservative, the non-observant. Theater J reaches out to the political right as well as to the political left. Theater J lets its art do the talking and the conversations revolve exclusively around the way the art reflects the world. That art–especially art about Israel–has almost always emerged from Israel, authored by Israelis, work that’s been frequently produced at Israel’s leading theaters. like Habimah, Beit Lessin, and the Cameri Theatre.”

But despite the efforts to unify and build a bridge, being a thought-provoking theater means we kick up some dust. And with that comes a certain kind of distinction. Witness today’s feature in The Washington City Paper annual BEST OF DC edition. We’re happy to be quoted correctly by the Arts Editor of the paper.

Washington City Paper BEST OF DC 2011
Best Fount of Theater Controversy

And finally, to put this penchant for controversy back into a bigger perspective, returning to Israel where there are truly lives on the line — where people are dying on both sides — where Israelis are being targeted and murdered — and our hearts are always with those fighting to preserve the country — to keep it safe, and to safeguard its values, its citizens, its soul.  This headline from Ynet:

“Israel’s dissidents are saving the country.”

The dissidents do not need to apologize for anything.

Their country owes them a great deal.

By Gideon Levy

Meanwhile, this theater company can only commit to its mission and what it knows how to do best; focus on the art. Great art will endure. And with it. Its creators, and those who will treasure