Agora Theater—“think ‘marketplace of ideas’ in the public square”—was founded by Anne Hallinan and her fellow San Francisco Mime Troupe alumna Patricia Silver
(also a charter member of Word for
Word) expressly to stage British playwright Caryl Churchill’s brief (six pages, 10 minutes playing time) Seven Jewish Children: A Play for Gaza, which has stirred up controversy since its first performance at London’s Royal Court last February.
Its subsequent defense by Tony Kushner and Alisa Solomon in The Nation, with one of the plays written in response to it, Israel Horovitz’s What Strong Fences Make (also under 15 minutes) has fueled the fire.
Both are presented as staged readings, first at San Francisco’s Theatre Artaud last Monday, then this Monday, Nov. 16, at Berkeley’s Ashby Stage.
“Neither of us had produced before,” Hallinan and Silver state in the show’s program. “At times it felt a little like an old Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland movie—‘Hey, kids, let’s put on a play!’”
The “kids” included Z Space Studio, home to Word for Word, on whose board Hallinan sits, and Shotgun Players, both offering venues, as well as director Hal Gelb, stage manager Karen Runk, sound designer David Hallinan and the cast, familiar faces to Bay Area theater goers: Sheila Balter, Hallinan, Alan Kaiser, Danielle Levin, Anthony Nemirovsky, Robert Sicular and Patricia Silver—all Equity members but Hallinan and Kaiser.
The whole ensemble, with the exception of Kaiser, performed Churchill’s brief piece, remarkable for the sweep of history it covered, seven vignettes of the past three-quarters of a century: Jews trying to hide or escape from Nazis, emigres to America entrusted with a Jewish child from a refugee camp, Jews emigrating to Israel with high hopes—and in the following vignette, coming to grips with the realities, Israel’s victory in the 1967 War and the prospect of more land, a family going to a swimming pool where there’s been a dispute with Palestinian farmers over water, and an Israeli family discussion today, in which the grandmother has seen the changes—and “still remembers why they’re there.”
The unifying motif throughout these quick time shifts, scene changes, is the repeated phrase: “Tell her ...”
There is no child present; in fact Churchill, who didn’t specify how the script, which “looks like free verse,” is to be read (it was noted that a past performance had featured a single actress reciting all the lines, internalizing them, becoming a psychological conflict), specified that no children should be in any production of the play.
“Tell her it’s a game ...”; “Tell her she can make them go away if she keeps still ...”; “Tell her this is the photograph of her grandmother, her uncle and me ... Tell her her uncle died ... Don’t tell her he was killed ... Tell her he was killed!”; “Tell her about Jerusalem!”--up to: “Tell her not to be rude to them ... Don’t tell her who used to live in this house ...”; “Tell her to be careful ...”; “Tell her she has nothing to be ashamed of.”
Punctuating this litany: “Don’t frighten her!”—which is also the final line. Hal Gelb noted that final line—throughout a kind of syncopation to “Tell” (and “Don’t tell”)—as saying a lot about the play and the way it’s performed.
Horovitz’s piece featured just two actors, Nemirovsky and Kaiser, and—though brief and allusive to events, like Churchill’s play—is structured more like a traditional melodrama: a soldier guarding a checkpoint into a Palestinian sector stops a man in the early morning, just before the checkpoint is due to open, and identifies him, realizing he’s an old schoolmate he didn’t recognize, who’s become famous, apparently as a writer—and who has suffered some sort of tragedy. The soldier’s ebullience contrasts to the other man’s diffidence; the soldier occasionally breaking off in embarrassment to offer condolences, apparently for the man’s triplets.
Everything is stated or inferred from the excited, mostly one-sided conversation the soldier tries to engage the other in: memories and news of mutual friends.
The civilian makes a few dry comments, remarks that he expected to see his old acquaintance at the checkpoint—and refuses to be searched, referring tensely and obliquely to what he intends to do, the soldier protesting, “None of us have ever done that!”—leading to a quick climax, no denouement.
Less than a half hour of stagetime, followed by discussion. In the audience were many Bay Area theater people—Monday is, after all, traditionally a “dark” night onstage. After the discussion, there was something of the feel of a reunion.
Some of the most interesting points were in clarification of what the plays actually showed or textually seemed to mean, along with details of their history.
Churchill’s play has been denounced both as anti-Semitic and anti-Israel—and praised as poetic and beautiful.
The program notes quote Churchill saying the play is about “the difficulties of explaining violence to children. In the early scenes, it is violence against Jewish people; by the end, it is the violence in Gaza.”
Horovitz’s play was suggested for the reading by Gelb. Horovitz has declared that Churchill’s piece was, among other things (including derogatory to Israelis as a group), manipulative, although he didn’t specify the way in which it was. (At one point, one theater worker exclaimed, “And he calls HER manipulative!”—to which a director genially replied, “Playwrights ARE manipulative!”)
The readings had about eight hours rehearsal time. To a question if the participants were on “the same page” concerning interpretation, Gelb replied that there wasn’t a lot of discussion.
Hallinan remarked that there had been three different ways suggested to perform the last scene of Churchill’s play: the provocative lines (in the version onstage now, delivered by the grandmother character, while the next generation sits in tense, almost cringing silence, punctuated by a few exclamations) were also considered as being delivered sarcastically (as if “I’ve heard it all”) or distributed to different voices.
Finally it was decided to go with the grandmother delivering the lines heatedly, which Gelb had favored. “Otherwise, it took away the dramatic impact,” Hallinan said.
To remarks about the vengeful attitude of the civilian in Horovitz’s play, Gelb pointed to inferences in the dialogue that he was also guilty, additionally griefstricken perhaps for feeling he hadn’t been a good enough father and husband.
Though the plays sit on opposite sides of a controversy, both very deliberately showed divisiveness in the Israeli camp. Some commented on the absence of Palestinian perspective in either; the same could be said for a lack of a non-European Jewish viewpoint.
Others spoke of how Churchill showed “mythologies ... passed on to the younger generation by both sides ... it’s the next generation that will live out the realities we’ve failed to integrate.”
Another remarked how both plays “described the same reality: both sides trapped by the justification for everything they do, neither path involving living with the other side.”
After one spectator commented on Churchill “getting us inside the head” of her characters, instead of apportioning blame, R. G. Davis, founder of the SF Mime Troupe (and of Epic West), noted similarities--and disparities--between Churchill’s play and Bertolt Brecht’s collection of short plays, meant to be performed together, THE PRIVATE LIFE OF THE MASTER RACE.
The discussion was moderated by Jane Ariel, a family therapist and group mediator who teaches at the Wright Institute in Berkeley and holds dual U.S.-Israeli citizenship.
Gelb noted “reams” have been written about the controversy, much of it appearing on the Guardian (UK) website. Both plays are freely licensed to producers who will perform them for free without editing, and solicit funds for charities proposed by the playwrights—in this case, Medical Aid to Palestine and One Family Fund, which offers aid to children of various backgrounds injured in attacks on Israel.
Agora Theater, staged readings of “Seven Jewish Children: A Play for Gaza” by Caryl Churchill and “What Strong Fences Make” by Israel Horovitz, with discussion to follow. 8 p. m. Monday, Nov. 16 at the Ashby Stage, Ashby Ave. At MLK. Free.