Let’s set the scene. Feinstein’s/54 Below had a concert scheduled for Sept. 11, 2016 to benefit Black Lives Matter. Then, the week of, ticket holders were abruptly emailed that the show had been cancelled. A more detailed email to performers indicated that the cancellation was due to the venue owners’ and management’s desire to appear unaffiliated with certain elements of BLM’s political platform. Specifically, the parts of the platform that concerns Israel and the Palestinian people. In response, a group of over 50 theatre artists signed a letter protesting the cancellation, which was brought forth not by BLM, but by Jewish Voice for Peace, a liberal Jewish organization that seeks a peaceful two-state solution.
Now, let’s set aside for a moment the question of whether Feinstein’s/54 Below acted appropriately or not. Let’s set aside the question of whether the American Jewish establishment’s outrage at BLM’s platform is acceptable or not. Let’s set aside the question of whether concerns about Israel belong in an American Black Lives Matter platform or not. While we’re at it, let’s set aside the entire profoundly messy history of the Israeli-Palestianian conflict. For the purposes of this post, I am primarily interested in one question: How can we as theatre makers do better?
We live in a country where, unfortunately, if you’re for something than you must be seen as against something else. Even the most simple inclusive greeting of “Happy Holidays” is seen by some as anti-Christmas. We theatre practitioners must not only do better for ourselves by dismantling such sentiments, but for our audiences. They deserve better. They deserve better than a benefit concert they have generously purchased tickets for be canceled due to some distant controversy that the theatre management is too nervous to even come near. Being for BLM doesn’t have to mean being anti-Israel, even if for some those two ideas are tied exclusively together.
Theatre at its best lives in the gray areas where we relish sitting in the muck of too many questions. As a liberal Jew, for me recently nothing has been muckier than this challenge of the BLM platform and American Jewry’s response to it. It’s often painful, but I believe it to be my duty to lean into this struggle, and I believe it to be the theatre community’s duty to lean into it as well instead of shying away from it.
I want a theatre that relishes controversy and contradictions. I want a theatre that invites and includes divergent voices. I want a theatre that dares to struggle.
As for the theatres and artists too afraid to, I, for one, can only say Dayenu. Enough.