Theater J scales back plans to stage controversial play ‘The Admission’

(Gregory Ferrand) - Promotional art work for the production of “The Admission” at Theater J.

(Gregory Ferrand) - Promotional art work for the production of “The Admission” at Theater J.

Plans for the English-language world premiere of a controversial Israeli play at Theater J in March have been scaled back. The action follows a flurry of activity, including a protest group’s campaign against the play that raised concerns that the production would hinder donations to the institution that houses the theater company.

Officials at the D.C. Jewish Community Center (DCJCC), where Theater J performs and gets other cost-defraying support, in tandem with Theater J’s artistic director, Ari Roth, have decided to pull back “The Admission” from a 34-performance, full-production run in March. It will now be presented in what they are describing as a “workshop” run, lasting 16 performances, in proposed repertory with “Golda’s Balcony,” a biographical play about the late Israeli prime minister Golda Meir.

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The community center insists that the change of plans for “The Admission” has nothing to do with a vigorous campaign mounted by a local ad-hoc group that calls itself Citizens Opposed to Propaganda Masquerading as Art to stop the presentation. Motti Lerner’s drama is based loosely on events surrounding an incident in the 1948 Arab-Israeli war in which Palestinian villagers were killed.

The protest group, headed by Potomac lawyer Robert G. Samet, has mounted a campaign on its Web site, in letters and in the Jewish press beseeching donors to withhold money to the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, which provides financial support to the DCJCC and many other community and social service groups in the region.

“One must ask: Why are Theater J, the DCJCC, and the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington promoting a discredited and defamatory lie against Israel?” reads one recent e-mail from the group. “Is this what you want your charitable donations to the Jewish Federation to support?”

“No, this is not in relationship to COPMA,” said Carole R. Zawatsky, chief executive of the community center, calling the protest group by its acronym. “COPMA would love to see us close down the conversation, and our intention is to open up a conversation.” She added that the presentation of “The Admission” has been modified because a partnering Israeli company, Herzliyah Theater, had been shuttered. That troupe had no financial involvement in the Theater J venture and, according to Roth, shut down in May.

The DCJCC engaged a Washington communications firm, West End Strategy Team, to help frame a response to COPMA.

Roth said that COPMA’s effort to paint “The Admission” as anti-Israel smears the play’s intentions and meaning. For his part, Lerner, whose plays include “Pangs of the Messiah,” staged at Theater J in 2007, says he’s taken aback by the vehement pushback against a play no one has even seen. “Their protest expresses a lot of fear,” the playwright said by phone from Chicago, where another of his works, “Paulus,” is in rehearsal. “I didn’t know that this would be so frightening and scary that it would create such a discourse in America.”

Nevertheless, the campaign against “The Admission” has gotten traction.

Although some donors have reiterated their support, Roth says he was told other donors had vowed to withhold upward of $250,000 unless the play was canceled. Samet said he has heard from people who have withheld funds from the federation “and some of them, we know, are bigger donors.”

The federation’s chief executive, Steven A. Rakitt, disputed that, saying Wednesday that “very, very little” has been lost in terms of donations over “The Admission.” “Nowhere near $250,000,” he said. According to Rakitt, last year the federation raised $30 million from 13,000 supporters.

Rakitt stood behind a position staked out by the federation in an open letter in the Sept. 19 edition of Washington Jewish Week. “We reiterate the respect for the autonomy of our member organizations,” Rakitt said. He added that it was “troubling” that so much protest has evolved around a play that has not been seen or even read yet, but that “people feel passionately in both directions.”

The controversy raises many difficult questions about constraints on the artistic independence of a major Washington theater company and how directly those whose money filters down to arts organizations should have a say in how the organizations spend it. Within the structure of the DCJCC, Theater J has its own advisory council, but Roth reports to Zawatsky. Theater J balances its budget through ticket sales and donations it solicits on its own; the DCJCC’s support is chiefly in providing to Theater J the Goldman Theater in the center’s headquarters at 16th and Q streets NW.

In his 17 seasons as artistic director, Roth has produced new works and classics on a range of topics, stretching from personal dramas focusing on American Jewish life to conscience-driven work keying on humanitarian issues. One of his long-running initiatives is an ongoing festival, “Voices From a Changing Middle East,” that regularly features hard-hitting plays from and about Israel.

Two years ago, a play from Tel Aviv’s Cameri Theatre, “Return to Haifa,” provoked a similar outcry from Samet’s group. The tale was about a visit by a Palestinian family from the West Bank to the house in Haifa they once owned that is now inhabited by Israeli Jews. Written by an Israeli, Boaz Gaon, and based on a novella by a former spokesman for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine — who was assassinated by a car bomb in Beirut — the work drew ire in part because of its depiction of Palestinians as having been forced to leave at the time of Israeli independence. A counterargument holds that Palestinians fled on their own.

That production went on despite the protests. But COPMA started its protest campaign several months in advance of the scheduled staging of “The Admission.”

Lerner’s play loosely follows the outline of Arthur Miller’s classic drama “All My Sons,” about morally questionable actions in wartime. In “The Admission,” a young man presses his father for the truth about whether in 1948 Israeli soldiers massacred Palestinians in a village called Tantura, a town a few miles from where Lerner was born and raised. Lerner, whose fictionalized version renames the village “Tantur,” says he grew up hearing about what he termed the “massacre” in Tantura.

“My neighbors and family members, they all knew about the massacre; some of them participated in it,” Lerner said. “They were there and they saw it. This was not talked about frequently, but it was mentioned.” His interest in writing about it was kindled several years ago, he said, after a controversy erupted in Israel over a student at Haifa University whose thesis on the events of Tantura was rejected and who was subsequently sued by some of the surviving soldiers.

Samet, interviewed Wednesday in a Rockville coffee shop, described COPMA as a small group of volunteers with no paid staff and said that neither the Federation nor the DCJCC communicates with his group. COPMA has posted the first act of “The Admission” on its Web site; Samet, who was not aware of Theater J’s modified plans as of Wednesday afternoon, said he has not read the second act because he has not been able to obtain an English translation.

“We knew enough from the first act and from Ari Roth’s statements what the play is about,” Samet said. He insisted that any suggestion of an Israeli massacre at Tantura constitutes a “blood libel.”

Samet’s group charges that “The Admission” feeds into ­anti-Israel sentiments and that it is inappropriate for an institution devoted to support of the Jewish state to sponsor the work. The group argues that it provides comfort for those in the “BDS” movement that advocates boycotts, divestiture and sanctions against Israel.

While the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington issued a statement rejecting the BDS movement in April 2011, it has expressed solidarity with Theater J’s decision to produce “The Admission.”

Referring to the actions of agencies it finances, the Federation declared in its September open letter, “It is not our job to meddle in their autonomous decision making, or to single out a few programs from the thousands we support that may make some uneasy.”

The downshift to a workshop, Zawatsky said, will be a “unique and very special experience. We are really pleased to be able to show ‘The Admission’ in a workshop format in a similar way to what’s been done in Israel,” she said. “We are thinking that giving the audience an opportunity to see a work of art that is being incubated in this wonderful place gives you a chance to be part of the conversation with the artist.”

Lerner says his mission was to try to mend rifts, not widen them. “The play,” he said in an e-mail circulated by Roth, “is trying to suggest that these historical memories have to be explored and revised continuously in order to create a solid basis for reconciliation between the two people.”

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