Artistic directors of some 60 of the country’s most prominent nonprofit theaters responded swiftly and forcefully to the firing last Thursday of Ari Roth, a playwright and a.d. of Theater J, a prominent Washington D.C. company funded by the Jewish Community Center. In their letter, the chiefs — including Oskar Eustis, who leads New York’s Public Theater and organized the letter campaign with Tony Taccone of Berkeley Repertory Theatre, along with Andre Bishop, Eustis’ counterpart at Lincoln Center Theater; Michael Ritchie, of the Center Theatre Group in L.A.; Christopher Ashley, of the La Jolla Playhouse and Emily Mann of the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, New Jersey — called Roth’s sudden dismissal after 18 years “an act of politically motivated censorship in retaliation for Roth’s choice to produce and publicly defend challenging and provocative work.”
Under Roth, Theater J presented plays by a diverse range of writers and offered differing points of view about recent and ongoing events in the Middle East, as well as work by contemporary American playwrights such as Angels In America author Tony Kushner, whose The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide To Capitalism And Socialism With A Key To The Scriptures was coming to the end of its run at the tie of Roth’s ouster.
The letter, addressed to the JCC board of directors, reads:
We, the undersigned Artistic Directors, are outraged by the action of the JCC in Washington DC in summarily dismissing the long-serving Artistic Director of Theater J, Ari Roth, on the morning of December 18. The stated cause was ‘insubordination’, and it is absolutely clear that Roth was fired because of the content of the work he has so thoughtfully and ably championed for the last two decades.
Ari Roth is a capable, brilliant and inspiring leader of the American non-profit theater. The actions of the JCC, in terminating him for blatantly political reasons, violate the principles of artistic freedom and free expression that have been at the heart of the non-profit theater movement for over half a century. Such actions undermine the freedom of us all.
A free people need a free art; debate, dissent, and conflict are at the heart of what makes theater work, and what makes democracy possible. We deplore the actions of the JCC, offer our complete support for Ari Roth, urge the American theater community to protest these events in all possible ways, and call upon the full Board of the JCC to renounce this action of the Executive Committee of the JCC.
Several of Roth’s productions drew protests over the years from a committee calling itself Citizens Opposed To Propaganda Crusading As Art, which picketed shows such as Return To Haifa, in 2001, an adaptation of a Palestinian work that was nonetheless sympathetic in its portrayal of a Jewish survivor of the Holocaust. That play had been presented in Israel without incident. COPMA encouraged people to stop contributing to the JCC because of Theatre J’s programming.
The specific issue surrounding Roth’s firing, according to the Forward newspaper, was the JCC’s decision to terminate Theatre J’s annual festival, Voices From a Changing Middle East. Roth criticized a headline in the Forward about the cancellation, telling the paper that “Theater J has not moved to cancel anything. The DCJCC has made an executive decision and informed me and our Theater J Council of such. I’m committed to the future of the Voices From a Changing Middle East Festival and would never move to cancel such an acclaimed, important signature initiative.”
Executives of the JCC then fired Roth for “insubordination,” claiming he had “gone outside the bounds of protocol.” Publicly, they called the parting “amicable,” according to JCC CEO Carol Zawatsky. Roth says he plans to start a new company, and to take the Voices festival with him.