Theater J, coming off the most highly attended season in its history, interprets in a broad way its mission as a Jewish theater, staging works by Neil Simon as well as Sholom Aleichem. Over the years, too, Roth has built up through his “Voices From a Changing Middle East” festivals a repertory of plays, mostly by Israeli dramatists, that provide dissenting perspectives on flammable topics such as the West Bank settlements. As for the Peace Cafes, Roth says that the events may on rare occasions have been booked imprudently. One recent example, he says, occurred in a short-lived program — developed by Shallal at Busboys and Poets in the aftermath of the problems with the Peace Cafe — that invited Omar Barghouti, a Palestinian architect of the Israeli boycott effort.
“We have invited people, and there have been mistakes; it wasn’t a smartly timed booking,” Roth says. He adds, however, that the goal always has been to illuminate, not to ignite.
The question, of course, is how independently a company such as Theater J can continue to function when its political motives are being questioned. Roth says he’s received mostly expressions of support, from within and outside the Jewish community center. And he says the only way he knows to proceed is to present and produce the work that speaks to contemporary audiences.
“I don’t wake up worrying what COPMA is doing,” he says. “We’re trying to find the best plays possible to bring forward. Our zeal and our appetite remain undaunted.’’
Carole Zawatsky, recently installed as the community center’s chief executive officer — replacing Mickelson in the wake of a long-planned departure — chose her words carefully in commenting on what the tensions stoked by “Return to Haifa” and other volatile material meant for Theater J’s future. “I would suggest the work may be controversial for some individuals, but the choice is to present work at the highest level,” she said. “For me, the question is, first and foremost, to help this broad public that comes from this place of passion to understand that every voice is honored.”
Roth says that in a sense, his new season of plays — with works by Arthur Miller, others about Bernard Madoff and Baruch de Spinoza — is a calculated response to the debates that are occurring in Jewish households across the country. “Look at what we’re doing: We’re fighting for the soul of our community. We are enacting dramas, and the subject is the embattled soul of the Jewish people. It’s a community and a people that are split and torn, and we sit on the seams of that divide and we need to reflect that schism: that person who looks deeply at himself, and is divided.”
And the Peace Cafes? Whether they reappear at the community center or not, Roth says that he and Shallal are counting on a slate of future nights of hummus and argument.