Ari Roth, longtime artistic director of Theater J, an organization he has built over the past 18 years into one of the city’s most artistically probing and ambitious theater companies, said he was fired Thursday. Roth said notice of his dismissal was delivered by Carole R. Zawatsky, chief executive officer of the DC Jewish Community Center, of which Theater J is an arm. The cause given, he said, was insubordination, violating what he called the JCC’s “communications protocol.”
He said that he refused to sign a severance agreement, in effect rejecting an effort by the center to characterize his departure as being his choice. “They’ve crafted a letter that’s saying I’m resigning, not fired,” said Roth, adding: “I was terminated abruptly.”
In an e-mail obtained by The Post, Zawatsky told members of Theater J’s advisory board Thursday that Roth “will be stepping down as artistic director of Theater J,” adding that under his stewardship, the company “has become the premier Jewish theater in the country.”
On Thursday night, the DCJCC released a statement quoting Zawatsky as saying: “Ari Roth has had an incredible 18-year tenure leading Theater J, and we know there will be great opportunities ahead for him. Ari leaves us with a vibrant theater that will continue to thrive.”
Roth and Zawatsky, who was hired by the JCC in 2011, clashed repeatedly over some of Roth’s programming choices, particularly as they concerned the Middle East. Earlier this year, Theater J’s world premiere of “The Admission,” a play by Israeli dramatist Motti Lerner about a purported massacre of Palestinian villagers in 1948 by Israeli soldiers, was downgraded by the center from a full production to a workshop. That occurred after a small local activist group’s campaign to stop the play asked donors to withhold funds from the JCC’s parent body.
The group, calling itself Citizens Opposed to Propaganda Masquerading as Art, launched a similar effort in protest of a Theater J offering in 2011, “Return to Haifa,” a play that featured Arab and Israeli actors. From the highly regarded Cameri Theatre of Tel Aviv, Boaz Gaon’s drama — adapted from a novella by a spokesman for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, later assassinated — portrayed a Palestinian family returning to the home it had fled in 1948 that was occupied by Israeli Jews.
The latest and apparently final dispute was over the fate of Theater J’s Voices From a Changing Middle East Festival, an ongoing series of which “Return to Haifa” and “The Admission” were a part. Last month, the Jewish Daily Forward reported that the DCJCC was eliminating iterations of the festival. Roth said his commenting to the media after the article appeared was the reason given to support the charge of insubordination.
Roth said that in the wake of the DCJCC’s decision to abandon the Voices festival — no new festival offerings were on Theater J’s agenda for the current season — he was in talks with the center for “an elegant transition” that would have him leaving Theater J some months down the line. Those talks apparently fell apart Thursday.
As a result, Roth said, he will move ahead quickly with plans to create a new group, to be called the Mosaic Theater Company, that will be based at the Atlas Performing Arts Center on H Street NE in Washington. The Voices From a Changing Middle East Festival is to be part of the new venture, Roth explained, adding that the new company would start up late next fall.
What happens at this point to Theater J — whose identity is as closely linked to a long-serving artistic director as any in the region — is unclear. In her e-mail, Zawatsky noted that “while a search is underway for a new artistic director, Theater J will continue operating” under managing director Rebecca Ende and associate artistic director Shirley Serotsky. The larger question, of whether the troupe will be rendered a rather toothless version of the vigorous entity that Roth championed, is up in the air.