By last summer, the estrangement was nearly complete. Tensions between Theater J and its parent organization, the D.C. Jewish Community Center, over the theater company’s offerings related to the Middle East had risen to such a level that a rabbi had to be called in to try to mediate.
As Ari Roth, Theater J’s longtime artistic director, recalled it, he sat down over a couple of lunches with Rabbi Bruce Lustig of the Washington Hebrew Congregation and the JCC’s chief executive, Carole R. Zawatsky, in an effort to undo the ire and mistrust that had soured his dealings with his boss.
“We went to marriage counseling,” is how Roth wryly describes those attempts. “We worked on our relationship.”
The meetings apparently came to naught, for on Thursday, Roth was fired by Zawatsky from the job he had held for 18 years, a tenure during which he built Theater J into one of the leading Jewish theaters in the country and one of the most important outposts for plays about Israel and its neighbors. His termination came after he refused to sign a severance agreement that would have given him six months’ salary and required that he keep quiet about the nature of his exit.
The firing, which was greeted with expressions of disbelief and widespread condemnation by everyone from Washington actors, directors and artistic directors to playwright Tony Kushner, was in point of fact the culminating event of a difficult, years-long struggle between Roth’s company and those in charge of the august Jewish institution on 16th and Q streets NW that housed it. Furious over some of his programming decisions — including producing a play based on a novel by a onetime spokesman for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), and a staged reading of another playlet, Caryl Churchill’s “Seven Jewish Children,” labeled by some as anti-Semitic — activist groups and others had exerted pressure on the JCC to try to stop them.
The dismissal, though, was not merely the wrenching end to a long-simmering personnel matter involving a headstrong staffer. It was also an illustration of a growing rift in the Jewish community, over what kinds of dialogue concerning Israel can be tolerated at a multipurpose Jewish organization — and whether, in fact, programming perceived as critical of Israeli policies has any place at a center for Jewish culture.
“The work that Ari’s been doing isn’t more or less controversial than it was 10 years ago, but the atmosphere for airing different voices has changed,” said Joshua Ford, who was the DCJCC’s associate executive director until leaving in March. “That’s in part because there’s a perception that Israel is more besieged than ever, and that’s a perception with some reality to it. And part of it is that it’s very, very hard for artists and institutions just to get along in general.
“Artists need to be artists,” Ford added, “and institutions need to answer to more than just their artistic impulses.”
The result of Roth’s firing is being absorbed still by an arts ecosystem unaccustomed to such candid reports of a respected leader’s departure. The DCJCC, in a prepared statement, described Roth, somewhat disingenuously, as “stepping down to pursue a new series of endeavors.” (Roth has disclosed that he is now forming a new company, Mosaic Theatre, that is seeking financial support and will begin operations at the Atlas Performing Arts Center next fall.) For her part, Zawatsky added in an interview Friday that her remarks in praise of Roth in that statement were heartfelt; she characterized his record as “incredible.”
And she vowed the center will not abandon discussion of the Middle East. “I feel I’ve been handed an incredibly important role in helping shape and maintain an open dialogue around Israel, which is so important for the Jewish community,” she said.
Some online commenters on Twitter and elsewhere have expressed relief that Roth is out. Still, the deep outrage over the abrupt, messy manner of Roth’s leaving may haunt the center and certainly tarnish the reputation of Theater J for some time; in the midst of rehearsals for Theater J’s next play, a world premiere of playwright Aaron Posner’s “Life Sucks (or the Present Ridiculous),” he had to pack up his office and be out of the center by 11 a.m. Friday.
“This is an appalling turn of events,” Alexander Strain, who has acted in many Theater J productions, wrote in one of dozens of supporters’ posts on Roth’s Facebook page. “This is punishing someone for attempting to forge a theatre concerned with creating dialogue and healing.”
Kushner, author of Theater J’s current production, “The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures,” offered his support in a letter that was to be read at the curtain call. “Ari was fired because he refused to surrender to censorship,” Kushner wrote. “He was fired because he believes that freedom of speech and freedom of expression are both American values and Jewish values.”
It is Roth’s sometimes controversial embrace of a wide-ranging Middle East dialogue that drew fire from some ardent backers of Israel; Roth says that he knew that his time at Theater J was coming to an end when earlier this year Zawatsky derailed his plans for 11 staged readings this March of his own play, “Reborn in Berlin.” The work was objected to, he said, because it incorporates the views of Turkish Muslims, addressing the issue of “how Muslims processed the Holocaust today.”
But Roth said there were festering strains between him and the center’s higher-ups, including the organization’s 17-member executive committee , going back to Roth’s 2009 decision to present readings, followed by discussions, of the incendiary “Seven Jewish Children.” It was that presentation that attracted the attention of a Potomac-based ad-hoc group that calls itself Citizens Opposed to Propaganda Masquerading as Art. “COPMA emerged from that controversy,” Roth said. And the group would become even more vocal two years later when, as part of his multi-year Voices from a Changing Middle East festival, Roth presented Israeli playwright Boaz Gaon’s “Return to Haifa.”
The play was based on a novella by onetime PFLP spokesman Ghassan Kanafani that told of a Palestinian couple’s return to their home in Haifa that they fled during the 1948 Israeli war for independence. Although the production came from the celebrated Cameri Theatre of Tel Aviv and travel costs were underwritten by the Israeli government, it proved so inflammatory that, Roth said, the Israeli Embassy’s cultural attache shouted back at the Israeli and Arab actors during the performance. In the aftermath, the JCC ended its affiliation with Theater J’s Peace Cafe, an after-play forum founded by Roth, his longtime supporter Mimi Conway and Andy Shallal, the Iraqi-born owner of the Busboys and Poets restaurants.
Roth’s position on 16th and Q deteriorated further with “The Admission,” a drama by Israeli Motti Lerner, about a purported 1948 massacre of Palestinian villagers by Israeli soldiers. COPMA stepped up a campaign to deny donations to the JCC, and Roth was told to scale back the production to a series of workshop stagings. (The center, sources say, has long been planning a major capital campaign to improve facilities.) As Zawatsky and Roth’s relationship grew ever less tenable, Ford said, “I felt like a child trying to have mom and dad get along.”
Zawatsky points to the array of programs that the JCC offers as a sign of the center’s vigorousness: “Theater J is without question one of the shining lights of the DCJCC, not unlike all of the beautiful children in our preschools,” she says. Others wonder, however, whether Roth’s dismissal augurs less glittery possibilities.
“I have real sadness that there’s increasingly less and less space for independent voices in the organized Jewish community,” Ford said. “The open space is shrinking.”