Beginning last spring, when leaders of various Jewish organizations— the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League, and Jewish Federation among others—learned “My Name is Rachel Corrie” would be produced here, we sought and received a dialogue with the Seattle Repertory Theatre.
Well aware of the controversy surrounding the play, we sought to understand the Rep’s decision to mount the play, and provide some context as to why many in the Jewish community feel uncomfortable with the play’s bias and hostility toward Israel. At the same time, pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel groups were celebrating the Rep’s decision.
When the Rep’s decision was first announced, opinion in the Jewish community was split. Some felt the Rep should do the play, though they worried about its strongly negative depiction of Israel. Others believed the Rep should be shunned for its willingness to produce the play.
Ultimately, leaders of a number of major Jewish organizations came together and decided to try to work with the Rep’s staff to try to balance the negative impact of the play. That decision, of course, did not mean that other Jewish groups stopped their plans for boycotts or informational pickets.
At a special meeting late last spring, Rep staff told our designated Jewish community representative that they would not allow any contextualizing of the play in the Encore playbill, nor would they permit any pre- or post-play presentations to do so either.
The representative was also told that if we wished to make our perspective known, we should take out paid advertisements in Encore, which we decided to do — not once, but twice since we didn’t agree on content — but that’s another story.
Now, acting the aggrieved party, the Rep’s Artistic Director David Esbjornson has written an article in the same playbill denouncing our paid advertisements.
“Buying ads in our theatre publication to denounce the work on our stage is unprecedented,” he wrote, and hypocritically added, “Though deeply saddened by these actions, I acknowledge the right of these groups to their free expression. Similarly, presenting My Name is Rachel Corrie is a form of free expression that we should embrace and protect.”
Neither Encore ad — each of which cost hundreds of dollars to publish — denounces the play in any way. Nor did any major Jewish organization condemn the Rep’s decision to mount the production. From the very beginning, all we have sought was an opportunity to balance the bias we perceived in the play. When denied this opportunity, we followed the advice given by the theater to advertise in Encore, only to be publicly lambasted for doing so by the company’s artistic director.
Furthermore, when the Rep finally decided to provide some contextualizing of the play through post-play panels, it unilaterally chose Jewish individuals, who, though well-qualified, stand to the left of most of the Jewish community regarding Israel/Palestine. The major Jewish pro-Israel organizations in Seattle were never asked to participate or even consulted about who should represent the Jewish community’s perspective.
Now there are conflicting messages in the playbill, and playgoers must pass through two sets of pickets: one protesting against the inadequacies of the play, the other protesting the presence of the first group and defending the content of the play and the Palestinian perspective.
Ideally, and in the hands of a more open, accommodating theater company, Seattle could have had what Rep artistic director Esbjornson said he wanted when he wrote: “The Seattle community has a long and admirable history of open dialogue on complex and controversial issues. It is a treasured part of our civic culture….The dissent that often accompanies public dialogue can be healthy and productive — a way to advance our search for understanding.”
I couldn’t agree more. In my experience, however, open dialogue begins with honesty, not disingenuousness.
Rabbi Anson Laytner is executive director of the American Jewish Committee – Greater Seattle Chapter.