The question now arises. Does Sony’s decision to pull the show embolden others in the world? Will every time a terrorist threat is made do theaters or libraries or TV Networks pull the “offending content.”
In the same week, another blow to freedom of expression fell here in Washington, DC. The Washington, DC Jewish Community Center (DCJCC) fired its long time (18 years) artistic director of Theater J, Ari Roth. I was at the Association for Jewish Theater conference on December 7th and 8th in Washington, DC, part of which was hosted by Theater J.
Ari is very successful and has created in Theater J a first rate, nationally acclaimed venue. It has brought in and nurtured great theater not only about difficult issues, especially the Middle East, but also by controversial figures with controversial points of view. To me he was doing just what theater is supposed to do. Both Ari and the JCC should be very, very proud of what they created. No doubt that if Ari’s departure was “in the normal course of events” there would be a party.
Yet the Washington Post today reports that Ari was fired for insubordination. It appears that Ari’s comments during a panel at the AJT conference last week, which was a panel on the topic of difficult themed theater, constituted the insubordination given as the basis of his dismissal. It is hard to know. Press was in the room as were members of Theater J’s advisory board who made the decision to dismiss him.
It appears Ari spoke out at a time when there were delicate negotiations under way. I am not an insider so I cannot be certain. However, listening to everything suggests to me that this transition away from Theater J by Ari Roth has been in the works for a while and for reasons that also remind me of the Sony situation.
For some time now a group of very rich people in the Washington Jewish community have been pressuring the JCC to fire Ari. An anonymous group calling itself “Citizens Opposed to Propaganda Masquerading as Art” threatened the financial viability of the JCC over Theater J decisions three years ago.
While all the details are not public the most immediate issue has been the cancellation by the JCC under pressure from donors of a festival called “Voices from A Changing Middle East." A leak to the Daily Jewish Forward of documents by Ari critical of that decision went public as well.
It is not my intent to litigate here the details of the disputes. Perhaps Ari spoke out of turn and in the wrong way. It is apparent he was in negotiations to leave over the growing opposition by donors to Ari’s artistic choices around Middle East issues. There was a hint of that in Ari’s comments at the AJT Panel discussion.
The point is that the DCJCC has succumbed ultimately to the pressure of large donors who object to theater that they believe shows Israel in a light that they disagree with. Not unlike North Korea not wanting the world to see a movie that might show their Supreme Leader in a light they disagree with.
The decisions by both Sony and the DCJCC are regrettable. Both discourage freedom of expression, creativity and the willingness of playwrights or artistic directors to test edges of orthodoxy in a community. Indeed the world.
Of course, Sony may end up eventually selling more of what might have been a modest box office hit, and Ari is probably going to land on his feet with a great theater company.
The real loss is what one commentator said on television: Producers and theaters will now be just a bit more reluctant to create really daring and challenging content. For that possibility we are all much worse off.