Podcast / On The Nose
On the Nose is our biweekly podcast. The editorial staff discusses the politics, culture, and questions that animate today’s Jewish left.
Campus Politics Takes the Stage in “The Ally”
Duration
0:00 / 38:06
Published
March 28, 2024

In The Ally—a new play at the Public Theater by Itamar Moses—an Israeli American adjunct professor is forced to confront the limits of his solidarity when his decision to support a Black student seeking justice for the police murder of a cousin becomes entangled with questions of Israel and Palestine. Though set before October 7th, the play is undoubtedly “ripped from the headlines,” taking up questions of campus antisemitism and liberal Jewish discomfort with left politics, and giving every “side” in the argument—hardline Zionists, Palestinians, young Jewish leftists, Black activists, and Jewish liberals—a chance to state its case. But does the play actually push liberal audiences beyond their preconceived biases, or does it allow them to remain in a state of comfortable ambivalence? In this episode, Jewish Currents editor-in-chief Arielle Angel, contributing writer Alisa Solomon, and artist-in-residence Fargo Nissim Tbakhi discuss what The Ally reveals about liberal America’s view of the left, and the opportunities and limitations of theater in spurring action.

Thanks to Jesse Brenneman for producing and to Nathan Salsburg for the use of his song “VIII (All That Were Calculated Have Passed).”

Plays Mentioned and Further Reading:

The Ally by Itamar Moses at The Public Theater

Disgraced by Ayad Akhtar

Who Is Tom Stoppard’s “Jewish Play” For?,” On the Nose, Jewish Currents

Jewish Groups Condemn Black Lives Matter Platform for Accusing ‘Apartheid’ Israel of ‘Genocide,’” Sam Kestenbaum, Haaretz


Transcript

Arielle Angel: Hello, and welcome back to On the Nose, the Jewish Currents Podcast. I’m Arielle Angel, the editor in chief of Jewish Currents, and I’ll be your host for today. Today we are talking about The Ally, which is a new show at The Public by Itamar Moses that deals with campus politics of the sort that have been in the news lately. And today, to talk about this show, I have frequent contributor on theater to Jewish Currents, Alisa Solomon, who is also a professor at Columbia. Hi, Alisa.

Alisa Solomon: Hi

AA: And Fargo Nissim Tbakhi, who’s our artist in residence. Hi, Fargo.

Fargo Nissim Tbakhi: Hello

AA: Artist in residence, and, I should also add, a maker of performance himself. So Alisa, maybe I will go to you, as I always do, to summarize this show for us.

AS: Okay. It’s a play of ideas, I guess I would start by saying, whose protagonist is maybe early forties, not very successful playwright, who is the son of immigrant Israeli parents—not that we meet the parents, but we hear about them. And he teaches as an adjunct at the local college, where his wife has recently taken a job as a community relations person who’s supposed to help the campus expand into a community of color, in a way not as destructive as had happened historically. So already, we have some moral complications. He has a former student, African American, whose cousin was killed by cops over the summer, who asks this playwright, Asaf, to sign a statement in support of a Movement for Black Lives-style activism. And so, just like with the Movement for Black Lives, there’s a plank in the platform for this group that talks about Israeli apartheid and oppression of Palestinians.

AA: And genocide, also, which is similar to the Movement for Black Lives

AS: Right, which of course, freaks him out, because he supports them, but does it have to be this language? So basically, the play is about the ambivalence and the moral/political conundrum of white, liberal, American, Jewish, kind of progressive, sort of Zionist, and his loneliness, politically, because he can’t find any place to stand where he thinks his most reasonable politics are represented.

AA: He is then asked to become the faculty sponsor for a new Jewish group on campus that would contravene some of the strictures of a Hillel-type organization that doesn’t allow the platforming of groups that quote unquote, “advocate for the destruction of the Israeli state,” but in practice just makes it so that you can’t invite speakers who criticize Israel (which is an active policy of Hillel international on campus, currently). And his shock when this group starts advocating for BDS and taking up the—let’s just call things by the names of they actually are—the Movement for Black Lives’ platform.

AS: Yeah, and the new group is sort of JVP.

AA: Right?

AS: There’s a Palestinian student, who the Jewish student is working with, who’s from a group that is basically SJP.

AA: Students for Justice in Palestine.

AS: Yeah, I think in the play it’s called Students for Palestinian Justice. So these things are mapped very clearly on the groups that exist. The problem is (or one of the problems is) that these groups are pretty caricatured. I mean, there’s a lot of things to be said in favor of the play, and I think I’ll probably be the one in this conversation saying those things.

AA: Do you want to get those out of the way now? I’m just kidding.

AS: I mean, I think that the playwright is really very deeply familiar with the point of view of his protagonist. And he understands that conundrum really, really well. I think he’s spent more time in those Zionist, non-Zionist, maybe anti-Zionist conversations than he has in any actual left political meetings on this issue. He seems to have built the characters who are from Movement for Black Lives and JVP from some kind of version of them from Commentary or someplace.

FNT: I would really agree with that. And I do think Asaf is really the only character in the play. And by that, I mean, he’s the only person who has anything resembling a personality, or thoughts or ideas that extend beyond a very specific prescribed ideological view. One of the things I was paying attention to in the play is how many characters make jokes, which—in the response to the play, one of the things that people have pointed out is that it’s funny, right? You know, it’s dealing with these “controversial,” timely topics, and yet, Moses writes it in a way that does include moments of humor. But the majority of those jokes come from Asaf.

AA: We laugh at the other characters, but we only laugh with Asaf.

FNT: Yes, exactly. And, to me, it is telling of a privileging of interiority that extends to Asaf but to none of the other characters, so that everything the play is doing dramatically is all oriented directly towards Asaf.

AS: Totally agreed, like no argument there. The one thing I would say is, okay, well, maybe a play doesn’t have to have a whole bunch of fleshed-out characters. Maybe it can be a play about a single consciousness that is grappling with some issues and has these other figures (as he sees them,) and filters them through his consciousness, and weighs the things in his head. That’s a different kind of play from a kind of psychological realism kind of play. If that’s what he’s writing: fine, I just still want those other viewpoints to be more nuanced, more believable, less easy to write off.

AA: I’m going to bring up a line that was astounding when I heard it in the play, probably one of the most astute lines about the play itself from within the play. There’s a scene where a very hardline Zionist Jewish Studies, PhD visits Asaf after he signs on to be the adjunct advisor of this new Jewish group. And he doesn’t want them to bring a, like, Ilan Pappé-type character to the school. And he says: “Professor Sternheim, given what you do for a living, you cannot pretend not to know that the meaning of a performance depends, most of all on, who is in the audience.” That line seemed almost so strong as to be a metacommentary on this entire play. I mean, the people who are in the audience, considering what we know of—and we talked about this a little bit, when we talked about Leopoldstadt—what we know of who the theatergoing audience in New York is—a kind of liberal, white, many of them Jewish audience—they are going to identify with Asaf, and that changes the responsibility in terms of what the play is doing. Like, Asaf doesn’t have to work to have the audience’s sympathy or to prove his side, or anything like that. If anything, they are identifying with him failing; they are identifying with his failure to stand behind his ideals, and they are getting some kind of relief from that, or recognition from that. And I think that means that he would have a much larger responsibility to these other characters, not just to represent them faithfully, because I don’t think it’s like, even necessarily in the text of what they say. It’s not like it’s wrong or something. It’s not like I was watching those characters and being like: What the leftist Jewish student is saying is not what someone in this position would say. It’s just that they’re not human objects, and they are, therefore, easily mocked and dismissed.

AS: Except for Farid, the Palestinian character. You know, he has a long speech in the second act, that—you know, it’s a low bar, but is maybe the best hearing of Palestinian view on a major American stage, let’s say, in a good while. And I think he’s less mockable than the Jewish character, for sure. And even then, the African American leader of the Movement for Black Lives (who just happens to be Asaf’s ex-girlfriend from twenty-something years ago). But I was gonna pull out that same line, Arielle, about audience, because I’m left with the question of: Does the play end up assuring these audiences that: Yes, you’re in the right; you have the reasonable, nuanced viewpoint, and the left is too radical and antisemitic for you (and of course, the right is completely untenable, as well), and so what can you do? You just kind of shrug? Does it just affirm them in that self-righteous stasis? Or does it really provoke some thinking about something beyond what they came into the theater with?

FNT: I will agree that that line totally astounded me—partially because I think it’s totally destructive of the play. I mean, it is so open and so specific as to make extremely clear what the play is trying to do and the inevitable failures of what that is. In this director’s note, Oskar Eustis says: “the act of listening to views we oppose is the most radical act this play demands,” which I also think is an extremely telling admission. The view that this kind of play has of the purpose of theater is, only and specifically, to provoke conversation. And that, in itself, conversation becomes an endpoint, a desirable endpoint. The writer Alex V. Green sort of points to this kind of phenomenon and calls it the Having Conversations Industrial Complex, to note that there’s this whole assemblage of cultural production, and people’s whose jobs it is to have a space for conversation—in order to then have more conversation, and more conversation, and more conversation. And the idea of this as an inherent good (and perhaps the only inherent good that a piece of theatre, for example, can take on) is very much at the heart of what The Ally is attempting to do. And thinking about that line that says, “the importance of a performance is who’s in the audience.” The meaning of that, as constructed, is to say (I think one of the things that you’re noticing Alisa) that the assumed audience of this play are people who would agree with that idea, right? That conversation and listening is the extent that they expect from themselves and expect from others. That the position the play leaves its audience in at the end is trapped within this kind of—what the play might call a five-sided conversation, or a many-sided conversation, in which there is no way out, and the only thing that you are expected to do is simply listen to all the sides, and maybe contribute something to the conversation. It leaves everyone trapped in this moment of inertia without a real tangible way to move on. And I think the play is, in some ways, attempting to critique that sense of inertia, but dramatically, its structure is such that that is where it leaves the audience, regardless of what its intent is.

AA: Well, and spoiler alert, it ends with Asaf retracting his name from the platform that he signed initially and retracting his sponsorship of the alternative Jewish group. And even in the last ditch effort, the thing that he’s always clear about from the beginning is that he’s against the police killing of the Black young person on the college campus. And he can’t even make it to the march on the day of the grand jury. So it really is about—not even just a kind of inaction but a withdrawal from things that he himself says, over and over again, that he agrees with and believes in. And again, when you have an audience that is that sympathetic to that position, it’s a pretty comfortable place for that audience to end up.

AS: Yeah, but let me push back on it the other way, because we never really know how an audience responds to anything. Is it also possible that some people judge him at the end, that they’re going along with him, and then they see that his failure to commit is reprehensible?

AA: Yeah, but you do get a sense of who’s in the room. And I know, Fargo, you read some reviews that noted that after the Zionist student gave his big speech at the end of Act I, there were cheers. He ends you know, by raising this alarmist view of, like: This is the Holocaust all over again. And then says, “We Jews do have a long history, a special tradition: it is of nodding sympathetically at the unhinged ravings of those who wish us dead. You’re a man of principle, and I respect that, I do. But I think you will find that you are being taken advantage of by people who, in fact, hate you.” And in our particular performance, there were cheers, but there was a lot of response to Asaf, like a lot of laughing at the “Jewish jokes,” quote unquote. A lot of kind of “Hmm” when there were points about Black Americans’ plight that were not echoed in other moments, basically, this desire to ally in these places. And I didn’t feel like, during Farid’s speech, you were getting a lot of in unison “Hmm” from the audience.

AS: I mean, honestly, the night I saw it, there was.

AA: Okay, that’s great.

AS: First of all, there was like, rapt silence in that speech, and some “Mm-hmms.” But somebody told me that at an earlier performance, somebody shouted at him, shouted at Farid, like, “That’s a lie!” or something like that.

AA: Wow.

AS: So it’s a little-—I think it’s a little all over the place. And I think it’s hard to generalize. I think it’s really hard to generalize.

FNT: I think one of the difficulties we’re arriving at is—obviously the play does not need to offer us an answer. But I think it also does come back to thinking about what the purpose of seeing this as a piece of theater is. So the other thing that Eustis, in this note in the playbill, makes reference to is the idea of Greek drama, and the way that ancient Greek plays functioned for the society of Athens or of Greece. And the difficulty with that comparison is that, for the ancient Greeks, yes, theater was a space of civic participation, but that’s because it was very much integrated into the fabric of social and civic life—in a way that going to see a play at The Public is not, for most people in this country. For most people in New York, right? It is not a part of an everyday lived navigation of things in the ways that that comparison wants to make it very easily.

AS: Yeah, I don’t think that’s the reason. I mean, there is a way in which the play is reflecting something of the fabric of lives. I mean, maybe not the fabric that we want to wear. But I’m interested, Fargo, in your larger question about what any play that addresses a topical issue is trying to achieve.

FNT: To me, the dramatic structure of the play, with regards to the way it’s taking up a specific controversial issue, feels very prevalent in the American theater of the last couple of years, the last few decades. It’s a play about controversy in which conversation is the main avenue that that controversy plays out and is explored; conversation between characters who are likable or sympathetic to some degree, and gradually, their conversation gets uglier and uglier until there is some kind of explosion or revelation. Which happens to some degree in this play, although it is tempered, and I think we can talk, perhaps later, about the ways that the play is constantly tempering everyone’s viewpoint so that they’re not too extreme in any one direction.

You know, when I was watching it, and thinking about that structure, the thing it reminded me the most of is Ayad Akhtar’s play Disgraced, which won the Pulitzer back in 2013. It’s very similar. It centers on a Muslim man who has very much assimilated into the fabric of American social life. And over the course of a dinner party, he gradually reveals to his nice, well-meaning wife and her friends, that actually, he does feel some kind of solidarity or connection to, essentially, Islamic extremism.

AS: Well, and then he becomes violent,

FNT: Exactly, it builds to this act of shocking violence. And I remember seeing this when I was much younger, I saw this play. And talking about audience, again, I saw it in Arizona, Phoenix, Arizona, amongst a lot of old rich white people (who are the only people who see theater in Arizona). And I felt so deeply unsettled by this play—not, I don’t think, in the ways that it wanted to.

AS: I was so disturbed by that play, Disgraced, because it basically seemed to say: You might think that a Muslim man can wear a suit and tie and speak nicely, and be educated, but underneath, he’s a terrorist. I mean, that’s basically what the dramatic arc of that play did.

FNT: But I was thinking about what this kind of American play seems to be, which is to sort of say that, underneath our conversations, there’s something else ugly and violent lurking. And that often, people don’t actually mean what they say, people don’t actually believe what they’re advocating for, that there’s something lurking that’s waiting to come out, which I was thinking about in relationship to The Ally, and I was wanting to think about what a play like this is attempting to do. Because I think you’re right, Alisa, that The Ally is very much reflecting conversations that are happening right now, but that’s all it’s doing. They’re sort of copy/pasted from Twitter threads and placed into the mouths of characters on stage and just batted against one another. If there is an intervention to be had in these conversations via a play in a theater, it seems to me that it would be leaning into the human messiness of these conversations in a way that The Ally is unable to do because it is so focused on everyone eloquently making their case, in language that no human person would ever say in a conversation with these stakes and in these settings. So there’s a way in which real relationships between characters in this play are so removed from actual experiences that people would have having these conversations, that it is able to make logical and rational cases on the part of every character. But that’s not how conversations happen. They are not always logical, rational conversations. And so it’s a play that is about generating monologues. Generating monologues where characters (very rationally and eloquently, and with appeals to emotion) express a particular viewpoint. And that viewpoint then filters onto Asaf, and then someone else expresses another viewpoint.

AS: Right. But I don’t think that’s the problem. You know, on the one hand, I hear you saying: The play is too much in the mold of standard American psychological realism, and it needs to be something else, to do something interesting. And now you’re also saying: This play isn’t successful enough at being psychological realism.

AA: I think both are true. I’m not a theater person, I’m just an enjoyer of theater, so maybe, from a perspective of knowing nothing, what I would think about in terms of making an intervention: What if the play started where it ends? It only gets to its real question at the very end. He spends the entire play raising this question that he has (or this feeling that he has) of discomfort and then kind of getting cut down by the other characters, and realizing that he’s wrong, and then being like: Well, that’s not it either—maybe it’s not that they’re singling out Israel in this thing, maybe they have good reasons for that, or whatever. But really, what he comes to at the end is the question of what to do with his own fear. After everything happens, this quote unquote “five-sided conversation,” he goes to a rabbi on campus (who happens to be a Black woman rabbi), and he says: I know that we’re not in danger right now, but the undercurrent of my entire life has been this fear, and I don’t know what to do with it. I mean, he’s basically asking the rabbi if that fear is legitimate or how he deals with that fear in his everyday life. This is the question of the play that actually gets asked in the last moment of the play. And to me, I’d love to see that play, frankly, because I think it’s kind of the only legitimate question in all of this: What to do with Jewish fear in these environments. And I’m frequently in conversations with allies—Black allies, or Palestinian allies—basically being like: Are Jews really this afraid? Like, what is making them so afraid? There’s a real inability to understand the Jewish psyche and the ways that we were raised with this indoctrination of trauma, or this intergenerational trauma, and the ways that actually moves things around. I think there’s a feeling of, like, maybe this is actually a tactic or something that is invented in order to support Israel or something.

AS: And then that just ramps up the fear more.

AA: Right, which ramps up the fear more. Exactly. And so, to me, this is really the question of the play, and we don’t even get there because we are so locked in the same conversation with coordinates that we already know.

FNT: That last moment, the last real monologue that Asaf has, I think the language he uses is also very telling about how the play itself is thinking through what the parameters of their question actually are. The language he’s using is that at the bottom of all of his hesitation and his wishy washiness is tribalism. He actually very specifically uses that word. And he’s saying: I know I’m connected—via my intellectualism, I’m connected to other left progressive causes. But he says like: It’s in my DNA that I feel a connection to this tribe. And I think the play thinks that the problem is tribalism, and I don’t think that’s accurate. I think that doesn’t understand the structural forces that are shaping these kinds of conversations. Think about the real dynamics on college campuses even before October 7, where the possibility of an adjunct professor starting or being involved with this group was already fraught—not because they would get into conflict but because there are reactionary conservative forces that would put his name on a list, or that would put Farid’s name on the list, and that would try and get him doxed, or suspended, or expelled. And I just don’t think that the play is able to think about what makes conversations difficult. I think the play thinks that the real problem is that everyone is just going to stick with their people.

AA: I kind of disagree with that. The tribalism comes up in a specific line, but the rest of that speech, looking back at it, is like a genealogy of his grandparents and all of the shit that they suffered: the pogroms, the Holocaust, somebody coming from Iraq, like he basically covers all of the major Jewish expulsions and mass murders of the 19th and 20th century. And then he says he’s afraid, and he feels like we tried being killed, and it didn’t work, and now we have to try something else. I mean, I’m just saying if that was the end of the first act, and then you had a whole second act of him grappling with his fear, consciously, then we might break through to somewhere. And just by the way, like you mentioned the way that it’s constantly pulling its characters back, like that nobody ever goes far enough—it is interesting, like Farid could have been more militant. He kind of nods to the existence of armed resistance, but he doesn’t talk about whether he himself supports it.

AS: No, he doesn’t. I think there’s a very deliberate way that Farid is portrayed not being too militant or scary. You know, in the first scene with Farid, he makes a joke, he sort of like barks at Asaf, right, because: You think I’m going to be scary and terrible. And then, when he has his long speech about his lived experience, and the consequences of occupation, and Nakba, et cetera, he makes it very clear that he’s not a Hamas supporter. He says “Fuck Hamas,” which is, of course, the thing that must be said for a Palestinian to say anything else on the stage.

FNT: Tight

AS: But then he also says, “and the PA are toadies of Israel,” and is a kind of, you know, a pox on all their houses.

FNT: And the play is doing that constantly, too, with so many characters where it’s sort of introducing these little complexities or contradictions. And to me, it felt like it is often taking an easy way out of real conflicts where, for example, at the end of Reuven—who is the more hardcore Zionist PhD student—at the end of his monologue at the end of the first act, he also says something that is fairly racist towards the Movement for Black Lives-type manifesto. And for example, the person who wrote that manifesto just happens to be, as we’ve mentioned, Asaf’s ex-girlfriend. And so there’s all these ways that everyone is sort of making a case, and then a little bit of backing up, whether it’s in their own rhetoric or through some complication of plot or relationship. But it also doesn’t, as we’ve said, humanize anyone enough for those conflicts to feel real beyond the ideas, if that makes sense. So it’s stuck in this midway point, where the reason people are arguing is that the play wants them to argue, and it has gathered all of these speeches for them to use to do it. But it doesn’t really know how to write those speeches into these characters as believable human beings.

AA: Again, it’s very transparent: These arguments are being staged for Itamar Moses and for the audience that identifies with him. I mean, that’s the person who needs these monologues to be condensed in such a way, and it provides the satisfaction of him getting to ask questions or poke holes, and getting a response in real time, which, mostly, I think people in his position are kind of shadowboxing in his head. And I think that’s, Fargo, where your critique comes in, because it’s like: Well, did we just watch Itamar Moses shadowbox in his head, or does it feel like this is a person who’s having these conversations in the real world? I mean, part of the question for me is like—let’s say that this was an autobiographical play, and somebody had just been through the experience that this adjunct had been through. Would the play look the same? And I’m just not sure that it would. I mean, there’s a moment, for example, where Asaf explains to Nakia (of the Movement for Black Lives) the way that antisemitism is connected to racism and xenophobia in the United States, and he makes an argument about the way that the Pittsburgh shooter or the Charlottesville marchers believe that Jews are responsible for replacing white people in the United States, and therefore this is all the same fight. I think that a lot of left-wing organizers in the United States generally understand this analysis. I don’t think that this is off the table, and that organizer can make a better reason why there isn’t a plank in their manifesto about, specifically, antisemitism—especially because of the way antisemitism is being used and the lack of structural antisemitism in American life. And there could have been a much more sophisticated argument about that, but because Itamar Moses wants to stick that one point, about how Jews don’t count in progressive American politics, you have a much less sophisticated leftist organizer.

AS: I mean, that’s my sense from the play. He doesn’t know what the actual conversations are among people doing that activism.

AA: And those conversations are messier. Messier in ways that would freak out the liberal audience much more than the conversations in the play are.

AS: Yeah, they would freak out a liberal audience. And, you know, again, to be the devil’s advocate on this: You don’t want to freak out the liberal audience. You want them to actually contemplate these ideas. You want them to actually hear what Farid is saying.

FNT: I mean, I think this does bring up the question of our conversation about the play, I think. The play can only understand its value as rationally, eloquently explaining everyone’s point of view, and then people will somehow make the right choice. And I don’t think that’s true—like: Well, if only X person just actually heard the Palestinians say their experience, and it had all these political brackets, and they said it in a very nice, rational, eloquent way, that thought with reason, then people would change their mind. And I think, just demonstrably, that is not the case. But that’s the approach of the play.

AS: But I think you’re giving it way too much credit. I don’t think that the specific critique you’re saying about the elements of the play is something I disagree with, but I don’t think that the play like, bears all the responsibility for the failure of liberal Americans to really understand the plight of Palestinians.

AA: I wanted to get back to what you were saying, Fargo, about the question of the way that the play portrays all these different characters, and the reason why we are talking about this play, even if I don’t think anyone loved this play. The fact that it is a window into the liberal imaginary and the kinds of conversations that liberal America really wants to have right now around campus politics and the intersection between Jewish, Black and Palestinian politics, is very instructive. I think what we learn is that this person pities, on some level, Black America; is pretty annoyed and contemptuous of Jewish progressives or Jewish leftists; and is, essentially, unsure what to do with the Palestinian—kind of chastened by the reality of their suffering, but not able to overcome the self enough to find themselves in solidarity. And I think that even just that, as a portrait, is pretty instructive for us on the left, in terms of understanding. I mean, I don’t think I could have reduced it that well even before this play on some level. And obviously, I don’t think that this play is a definitive. I think this is an almost best-case scenario on some level.

AS: Right. And if I could just interject, go see a far worse play called Prayer for the French Republic.

AA: Right, which is doing a really high level of antisemitic alarmism. You know, this is the best that the liberal Jewish establishment has to offer in terms of where they’re at, and it aligns really closely with the perspective that a lot of our media is coming from, or like stuff that’s in The Atlantic or The New York Times. And in that regard, it does feel kind of important that the conversation doesn’t take for granted this consciousness. And I’m not saying, like, Itamar Moses needs to renounce his positionality or can’t write from his positionality but that’s kind of why I’m pushing for the play to take off from where it ends. It does have a responsibility to push beyond that; otherwise, you’re just reinforcing what was already there. I think we would all agree, whatever the differences in our ideas about what middle of the road is, and not-radical American theater should do: that it should push people, or that you should feel a little bit differently when you leave.

AS: I mean, the critique that you made about Asaf is one that Farid actually makes in the play. He says something like: You, Asaf, can condemn individual extreme acts by Israel, but you refuse to see the system in the politics behind it all, that it’s structurally built into it. I mean, he points that out.

AA: Right. But even those counter arguments don’t make it into the structure of the play. They don’t change the play from the inside.

AS: I think for me, the biggest question about how the play works or fails to work has to do with whether one feels aligned with and affirmed by Asaf at the end, or whether there’s anything dramaturgically happening that frames him critically. Maybe it just sits in between; it’s not successful enough, either as a fully fleshed out, multi-character-driven drama on the one hand, and on the other hand, it’s not a critically-framed piece about how a single consciousness deals with all of these competing points of view.

FNT: Yeah. Thinking about the very ending moment, there is something interesting or compelling about it because it has stakes, in that, what it essentially boils down to at the end, is: Is he going to join this protest or not? We’re left in the very last moment with Asaf sitting alone by himself in a synagogue, and you hear the sound of the protests outside getting louder and louder, and then the show just ends. So it ends with us not knowing what kind of decision he’ll make. And I suppose, again, ideally, an audience will be left to fill in: I would or I wouldn’t. And I don’t know what the value of that is, but to me, it’s the closest the play ever got to rooting its conversations in a realistic requirement of the characters. Everything else felt so abstracted in ways that were all so neat. That last moment is the closest it gets to saying, like: This is where the intellectual conversation we’ve had needs to lead. But, as you’re saying, then we end, and we don’t get to see the real navigation of that choice in its aftermath or its consequences.

AS: I would like to be in that processing scene, actually, in real life, never mind in the theater.

AA: And so why haven’t we gotten that play?

AS: Well, one of the answers is that a lot of American playwrights are trained in the style that Fargo was (properly) denouncing and wouldn’t know how to write that play, or would think that it’s not a play that would advance their careers, or something like that. So I think that’s part of the reason that I think our playwrights—with some exceptions, exciting exceptions—are ill-equipped to write that play. I think we also all know from the experience of, you know, even revered Joe Papp himself, who cancelled El-Hakawati back in 1989, or what happened when Rachel Corrie played in New York Theatre Workshop, and so on—that there are members of the boards of directors of plays who are pretty Zionist-right, or center-right Zionists, who threaten to take their money away from the theaters. It’s easy to say, well, the artistic directors should have a spine and put some real work on there. And I think they should, and they’re also weighing the fact that there are jobs at stake for people who work at their theaters. And so that gets into the whole question of: Why do we have such a ridiculous system for funding our theaters—that it all comes down to the whims of people on the boards of directors who are chosen because they’re rich, and if they’re rich, they’re likely to have a certain set of politics that blah, blah, blah. So there’s just a lot of layers to that question of: Why don’t we have this play?

FNT: I would agree with that. I think what I would say is: This play is the only play that could make it to The Public that touches these issues. It’s the only kind of play that, as you’re saying, Alisa, is possible to produce in that space, for the reasons that you named. So, to me, I think it should lead us to thinking about the kinds of spaces that exist in order to make theater and for people to see theater, and, as you’re saying, the ways those are funded and structured.


AA: Thank you guys, so much, for joining again in the Jewish Currents podcast. Thank you to our producer Jesse Brenneman for always doing such an amazing job editing these episodes. If you liked this episode, please share it and subscribe to Jewish Currents at JewishCurrents.org. Thanks a lot. Bye bye.

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