Tackling 'Seven Jewish Children,' a Short Play That's Long on Debate

By Monica Hesse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The four-day run of a 10-minute play later this month in Washington has raised a very large philosophical question: Where does the art stop and the politics begin?

The play in question is "Seven Jewish Children: A Play for Gaza," an abstract, free-form work by British playwright Caryl Churchill. In it, seven unnamed characters discuss how to teach their children about complex events in Jewish history, from the Holocaust to the creation of Israel to the recent violence in Gaza.

As a work of art, "Seven Jewish Children" is "deftly constructed, evocative, elusive and provocative," says Ari Roth. He is the artistic director of the Jewish Community Center's Theater J in Northwest Washington, where staged readings of the play will be offered on March 26 and 28. (Collaborator Forum Theatre in Northeast Washington will house the play on March 27 and 29, as Theater J does not have Friday performances and Forum has put on Churchill's works before. )

Some have argued that the play is also something insidious. Consider these lines of dialogue: "Tell her they live in tents. Tell her this wasn't their home." And then, "Tell her they don't understand anything except violence." And then, "Tell her they're filth." And finally, the jarringly brutal, "Tell her I wouldn't care if we wiped them out."

Churchill, who opposed Israel's Gaza offensive, waived her licensing fee for the production, asking instead that theaters collect donations for the charity Medical Aid for Palestinians. (Theater J, which is prohibited from fundraising for outside groups, will offer the play for free. Forum will request donations.)

When the play premiered in London this year, some theater critics called the work anti-Semitic. The Spectator labeled the play "an open incitement to hatred" and a "ten-minute blood-libel."

In British media, Churchill has denied charges of anti-Semitism; Roth wonders whether an American audience will have a reaction so vehemently negative. "The idea is to give the play a hearing, to approach it in the spirit of inquiry," Roth says. "We're not going to take a right-wing British journalist's word that it's blood-libel."

Instead, the two Washington theaters, both of which frequently hold issue-based discussion groups, will present the play as an opportunity for dialogue, holding forums after each performance. Theater J will also follow "Seven Jewish Children" by debuting a response play, "Seven Palestinian Children," which New Jersey playwright Deb Margolin wrote after reading Churchill's work.

Although Margolin's play also features some controversial language -- "Tell him: When old men die, it is expected; when young men die, it is sacred" -- she argues that her play comes from a humanitarian perspective. "What I want to speak to is that moment when one human being is incapable of seeing the humanity in another," Margolin says. She is Jewish and says distress over some of Churchill's generalizations about the Jewish community caused Margolin to write her own play.

In recent weeks, in fact, responses to "Seven Jewish Children" have almost become their own genre. In addition to "Seven Palestinian Children," there is Robbie Gringas's "The Eighth Child" ("Tell her that it's more complicated than that") and Iris Bahr's "Seven English Children" ("Tell her her new medical treatment was developed in Israel").

"My druthers would be to critique this play dramaturgically, not politically," Roth say. But separating art from politics in a work as fraught as "Seven Jewish Children" might be a nearly impossible task, even for sophisticated theatergoers. The play brings up issues that prompt immediate emotional responses, however you perceive Churchill's intent.

Roth believes that there are many rational ways to interpret "Seven Jewish Children." It's a quick play, he says, "that accomplishes an awful lot."

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