Mosaic hangs out its theatrical shingle
In one of the inaugural acts by his new theater company, Ari Roth will stage a play that he believes was key to his firing at his old one.
As a result, Mosaic Theater Company of D.C. — the group born out of the ashes of Roth’s fiery departure last December from Theater J — will produce, in Hebrew and Arabic, “I Shall Not Hate.” The piece is based on a memoir by Izzeldin Abuelaish, a Palestinian doctor who lost three daughters in the 2008-2009 war in Gaza and who has been internationally recognized for his commitment to peace.
With a Palestinian actor, Gasan Abas, portraying the doctor, and Israeli director Shay Pitovsky staging it, “I Shall Not Hate” will be one of eight productions in Mosaic’s debut season, taking place chiefly at Atlas Performing Arts Center on H Street NE.
It’s a hugely ambitious first season, in fact, incorporating not only five entries in Roth’s ongoing project, the provocative Voices From a Changing Middle East Festival, but also three other productions that will highlight the company’s broader range of interests. That means a world premiere play about Rwanda, by the Broadway actor Jay O. Sanders; an area premiere of African American playwright Marcus Gardley’s “The Gospel of Lovingkindness,” directed by Jennifer Nelson, and the comedy “When January Feels Like Summer,” written by Cori Thomas and staged by Serge Seiden.
With an initial-year operating budget of $1.5 million, a staff of six and the high expectations of his supporters, Mosaic is drawing a level of attention rarely experienced by theater start-ups in Washington. That Roth, as artistic director, is being joined in the endeavor by practitioners of the caliber of Nelson and Seiden has added to the sense of a weighty addition to the city’s arts diet. Nelson, Mosaic’s resident director, headed African Continuum Theatre at one time and now works at Ford’s Theatre; Seiden, Mosaic’s producing director, is a veteran Studio Theatre hand who recently staged that company’s record-breaking hit, “Bad Jews.”
One of the many challenges Mosaic faces is establishing itself on the H Street Corridor, a part of the city undergoing a renaissance but that has as yet to prove to be a reliable anchor for theater. While clubs and restaurants are bolstering H Street as an entertainment district, theater audiences haven’t shown up en masse, in quite the way their arrival at Studio in the ’70s and ’80s spurred the rebirth of 14th Street. Just down the block from Atlas is the building that once housed the H Street Playhouse, a pioneering arts venture in the neighborhood that closed and is now a gym.
“There are more barriers on H Street,” Roth said, describing the formidable task of attracting patrons. “And these create a different set of ingredients. You wonder, can we replicate a sense of urgency, or will we be in a conversation in a mostly empty theater?”
Mosaic was propelled into being out of the tumultuous events of last December, when Roth was dismissed after 18 years as artistic director of Theater J. His vision of the company he’d transformed from a rather undistinguished presenter of Jewish-themed work into one of the nation’s most daring in that regard ran afoul of the leadership of the D.C. Jewish Community Center, of which Theater J is an arm. Primarily it was Roth’s championing of plays that looked critically at Israel, or sought to spotlight the views of Palestinians and others in the region, that caused the rift.
One of the early fissures was created when the DCJCC scuttled Roth’s future plans for the festival; “I Shall Not Hate,” he says, was the next play on the roster.
Now, the piece will be grouped in Mosaic’s 2015-16 season with four other festival entries, running in January to April of 2016. They are: “Wrestling Jerusalem,” written and performed by Aaron Davidman; “Eretz Chadasha: The Promised Land” by Pitovsky and Shachar Pinkhas; “Hkeelee (Talk to Me),” written and performed by Leila Buck, and “After the War,” by Motti Lerner. Roth and the JCC’s chief executive, Carole R. Zawatsky, were in bitter contention over Theater J’s staging of an earlier play by Lerner, “The Admission,” which dramatized a haunting legacy of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war.
Although Mosaic is receiving financial and moral support from many who followed his work at Theater J — several members of Theater J’s advisory council left to join the Mosaic board — Roth says he also has to cultivate new audiences and backers. “It’s built into the budget that some people can’t make the trip,” he said, referring to his Theater J base. He added that after he was persuaded to resettle on H Street by Jane Lang, founder and guiding force behind the Atlas, “That pushed me to look at the new community I’m in. It’s a part of D.C. that’s still grappling with its identity.”
Back at the JCC on 16h Street NW, Theater J, too, has been wrestling with what it wants to be, post-Roth. Shirley Serotsky, who was second in command under Roth and is now Theater J’s interim artistic director, says that in the debate over whether to stay the course or head in an entirely new direction, the company has chosen “a little bit of both: continuity and a fresh approach.”
As a result, Theater J’s seven-play new season — its budget, too, amounts to $1.5 million — will include pieces that tread more safely when it comes to matters of Israel and Jewish identity. The one play with Middle East roots is an adaptation by Washington-based director Derek Goldman of “Falling Out of Time,” by the highly regarded Israeli author David Grossman. Like the author of “I Shall Not Hate,” Grossman lost a child to war, a son killed in Lebanon in 2006. “Falling Out of Time” is a meditation on parental grief.
“Stars of David: Story to Song,” Aaron Harnick and Abigail Pogrebin’s musical-revue celebration of well-known Jewish figures, will be Theater J’s holiday presentation in December. The new work on the company agenda encompasses “Queens Girl in the World,” a world premiere by Caleen Sinnette Jennings and a regional premiere of Anna Ziegler’s “Another Way Home.” (Ziegler’s play “Photograph 51,” which was first staged by Maryland’s tiny Active Cultures and then by Theater J, will be done this September in London, with Nicole Kidman starring.)
The other plays at Theater J will be a revival of Wendy Wasserstein’s “The Sisters Rosensweig” and two recent pieces that have been well-received in productions across the country: Stephen Karam’s “Sons of the Prophet” and Dan O’Brien’s “The Body of an American.”
How these two companies, bound by Roth’s history, fare over the next year — and whether a saturated local theater calendar has room for another organization of serious intent — will be one of the dramas to keep an eye on all season long.