Commentary: How to Avoid a Controversy

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This week was notable in New York theater circles for a play inspired by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that was supposed to open Wednesday night, but did not. WNYC’s Brian Lehrer says the whole controversy could have been avoided.

LEHRER: Last year, I played the part of Narrator in a Westchester Philharmonic production of The Yellow Wind, an ambitious work of classical music based on a book that is well-known in Israel and was largely critical of the Israeli occupation. For several months before the premiere, the orchestra and composer Tamar Muskal did outreach to the Jewish and Arab communities in the area to create a receptive climate for the work. The out reach included explanations of the context of the piece and discussion forums based on its text. When we performed it last May, the largely Jewish audience at the Performing Arts Center in Purchase found themselves challenged, but, judging from the audience response, also very moved. The orchestra received almost no complaints from community leaders.

This month, we have seen a very different scenario play out around another planned performance with a very different result. This was supposed to be opening week in New York for My Name Is Rachel Corrie, a play based on the writings of an American activist killed by an Israeli bulldozer during a protest in the Gaza Strip. The exact circumstances of her death are hotly contested.

The play is a big hit in London, but the New York Theater Workshop announced that it would postpone its New York premiere of the play after getting negative feedback from members of the Jewish community here. So the theater told the editors of the play that they wanted to begin an outreach process and THEN raise the curtain. They did not propose a new date.

But in this case, the attempt to prevent a firestorm of criticism wound up creating one. Critics said the New York Theater Workshop – despite its long reputation as politically progressive – caved to just the anticipation of pro-Israel pressure, fearing an outcry and the potential loss of funding from Jewish donors.

As with Rachel Corrie’s death, as with so much that gets embroiled in Mideast politics, the exact circumstances of the decision to postpone remain hotly contested. But on my weekday call in show on Thursday, co-editor of the play Kathleen Viner said outreach is not a good enough reason to delay.

VINER: On the community outreach, in Britain, when we do political plays we don’t really believe in consultation. We think plays are works of art and they stand on their own feet or they don’t. This isn’t a piece of journalism. It’s a piece of art.

LEHRER: So how to make sense of this creative and political mess? As is often the case with Mideast politics, there seems to be enough blame to go around. The NY Theater Workshop failed to do their homework in advance of scheduling the play – just the opposite of what the Westchester Philharmonic did with The Yellow Wind last year. Then they freaked out, and wimped out, when they decided they might be hurt. And I’m not convinced their Jewish donors would have been as thin-skinned as many people assume.

But I think the play’s creators are equally at fault. It’s one thing to take an uncompromising stand against bulldozing homes when people’s lives might be at risk. It’s another to take an uncompromising stand against outreach to the Jewish community. It indicates to me that the playwrights were more interested in picking a fight and creating a public issue – creating another grievance against pro-Israel Jews – than they were in having the play seen and more widely understood. The cause of theater, and the cause of peace, are both the worse for their actions.