Theater J's English-Language World Premiere of The Admission Sparks Controversy and Protests; Dramatists Guild Responds

Objections to a production of The Admission, a play by Motti Lerner that was scheduled to be presented by Washington, D.C.'s Theater J, have resulted in the play's English-language world-premiere production being reduced to a workshop and the length of the production cut in half.

Presented as part of the Voices From A Changing Middle East Festival, part of the Washington, D.C. Jewish Community Center's Embracing Democracy series, the production of The Admission sparked a response from the ad-hoc group Citizens Opposed to Propaganda Masquerading as Art, which raised objections to the play, criticizing its portrayal of Israeli's behavior during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. Staging a pressure campaign to cancel the production, COPMA has called the assertions in the play a "blood libel" and has asked that donors to the Jewish Federation withhold contributions as long as the drama is being presented by the DCJCC, of which Theater J as a program.

Here's how The Admission is described by Theater J: "An Israeli homage to 'All My Sons' set in Haifa during the first Intifada. Giora is a young professor engaged to Neta but in love with Samia, the Palestinian daughter of a family friend who becomes troubled when Giora's father's company begins building on the site of a battle that took place 40 years ago. Giora struggles to find the truth about his father's war-time secrets, confronting the causes of his brother's death and how Giora came to incur his own war-time injuries in Lebanon. As Giora's family presses him to look forward, not back, the play asks how we can move forward toward peace while still wrestling with the ghosts of war."

COPMA has documented its objections on its website, writing, "Theater J at the District of Columbia Jewish Community Center (DCJCC) has for years, under the directorship of an individual named Ari Roth, been staging plays and holding workshops that denigrate Israel. The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington has been providing funding to Theater J, and despite COPMA's efforts, continues to knowingly funnel dollars to support Theater J. This violates the Federation's fiduciary obligation to donors to monitor the destination of its donor contributions. We would not support Jewish Federation funds going to support the Palestinian Authority, and we should not support Jewish Federation funds going to attack Israel in its struggle for peace and security."

COPMA did not respond to requests from Playbill.com for an interview.

Ari Roth, artistic director of Theater J, spoke with Playbill.com about The Admission and COPMA's objections, saying he believes the play invites reflection on cultural history. "I think, like any great play, [The Admission] makes an attempt to excavate foundations that upon which a faulty pretense is founded," Roth said. "We need to go back and look at a murky and contested past in order to better understand how we become who we are, and how we can move forward — and by this, when I say we, I'm talking about Israelis living alongside Palestinian neighbors."

The campaign to cancel The Admission is not the first campaign COPMA has waged in objection to Theater J. Roth cited incidents in 2009, 2010 and 2011 when the organization had protested Theater J's presentations of theatre and cultural events, calling for Roth's firing. Roth said the boycotts have not had a large financial impact on the Federation, and he cited statements printed by the Washington Jewish Week in support of the work of the JCC, including Theater J.

"COPMA has created a lot of unnecessary fear about this play," Roth said. "Having not read the play, they assume it is a documentary about Tantura. They assume Tantura is an open and closed case. They misunderstand the arguments of the play, and they misunderstand the intentions of the play as a work of art."

In a response to the objections voiced by COPMA, Theater J reduced the run of The Admission, downgrading it from a 34-performance run to a workshop presentation of 16 performances, featuring a talk back after each performance. The talk backs are scheduled to include members of Theater J’s artistic staff, as well as former Middle East envoy Ambassador Dennis Ross, Arab-Affairs scholar Shibley Telhami, Palestinian-Israeli security analyst and media strategist Dan Fleshler, author Peter Beinart, law scholar Marshall Breger, Islamic scholar Akbar Ahmed and Rabbi Bruce Lustig. Additionally, Theater J added another production to its lineup: a full-scale production of Golda's Balcony, starring Tovah Feldshuh as Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir.

"A decision was made by the CEO of the organization to not do a six-week run," Roth said. "It was imperative to our team, including the Israeli artists, that we still have the integrity of a 16-performance, Helen Hayes Award-eligible run of the play, to give it the three weeks for which it would be worth the investment and be a sufficient learning experience for the performance of the play, to really make it count."

The top officials of the Dramatists Guild of America voiced their support of Theater J in a Jan. 27 letter signed by composer and Guild President Stephen Schwartz ( Pippin, Wicked) and librettist John Weidman ( Assassins), who heads its legal defense fund.

"The reason we dramatists feel so strongly about this is that COPMA's actions strike at the very heart of the function of art and culture," the letter stated. "While the arts may sometimes inspire us and support our social institutions, they may also unsettle and challenge us and make us question our values and assumptions. It must never be considered dangerous to encourage people to think. A culture evolves, in part, based on the provocation of its artists. The best theater, from Oedipus Rex to South Pacific, has always been provocative, challenging, and unsettling. That's part of what theater is for."

"The question isn't about whether the play will make some people happy or sad, or whether some people think it's valid or invalid," said Ralph Sevush, executive director of business and legal affairs and board member and officer of the Dramatists Legal Defense Fund. "The fact is, this playwright is an Israeli playwright who has served in the military, had children serve in the military, has had productions commissioned and produced by Israel and is widely produced in Israel... People can have opinions. I just object to them inflicting them on the general public and inhibiting the free dissemination of ideas that they object to."

"I think the important thing that plays do is they reveal humanity, and they present relationships," Roth said. "And we're not presenting a history paper. We are not doing a Master's thesis or a historian's review. We're presenting a play about two families, a dozen characters, and their relationship to their present circumstances and to the past... So we do what the Op-Ed pages don't do, and that's explore the life of the region through human beings in motion, in action, in relationship with each other and having these very dynamic conflicts with themselves and with their loved ones. So, yes, we present these plays because they engender very strong community dialogue and conversation."

"Theatre and art, generally, isn't about making people happy," Sevush said. "It isn't about reinforcing their pre-existing ideas. It's about challenging those ideas and that's what an institution like that is for."

Despite reducing The Admission to a workshop rather than a full run, Roth expressed confidence that the presentation's message would reach the audience.

"We were, you might say, forced, to bring a second narrative to our Middle East festival this year," Roth said. "And in so doing, shrinking the production of The Admission from a six-week world premiere to a three-week workshop presentation... and we view the unfolding of events as having, you might say, triggered by COPMA as being unfortunate. But we have, we believe, fought valiantly to protect the play for what it is — a new work that wants to be heard by the community. And in our 16 performances, we believe we'll still have a chance to play it for 3,000 people or even more, and they will come to hear what it was all about and make a decision for themselves."

The Admission will begin its workshop presentation March 20 and continue through April 6.

Visit washingtondcjcc.org/center-for-arts/theater-j for more information.