Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Rhodes to stage Caryl Churchill's "Seven Jewish Children"

Posted By on Wed, Nov 23, 2011 at 3:26 PM

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A line from Suzan-Lori Parks' Top Dog/Underdog has been running through my mind since I met actor/director Pamela Poletti for wine at the Belmont Grill last week. It's the line where Lincoln tells his brother Booth about the general public's taste in historically-themed carnival entertainments. "They don’t want it looking too real. I’d scare the customers then I’d be out for sure," he says. "People are funny about they Lincoln shit. It’s historical. People like they historical shit in a certain way. They like it to unfold the way they folded it up. Neatly like a book. Not raggedy and bloody and screaming."

Poletti says her decision to stage Caryl Churchill's 10-minute play Seven Jewish Children has made her instantly controversial. And that this development is surprising to her.

What's more surprising to me —and a real testament to the text's ability to launch conversations— is the sheer volume of criticism this tiny little play has generated. Some commenters have described Churchill's dramatic poem as a clear-eyed response to the troubling Gaza war while others have dismissed it as agitprop and denounced it as antisemitic blood libel. But is it either one, really?

Churchill's ritualistic text—which you can read in 5-minutes for free online here— is one-sided and manipulative by design and the playwright makes it clear in the subtitle that this is "a play for Gaza." But, one-sided or not, do her allusions to children killed in the 2008-09 Gaza invasion really echo Medieval propaganda about murderous, well-poisoning Jews using the blood of innocents in their religious ceremonies?


Seven Jewish Children is too brief to be seriously viewed as a nuanced history of Israel but it does show how histories— real and emotional—are personal and cobbled together from many competing stories. And if there's one thing I'm confident about regarding the ongoing, seemingly intractable strife in the middle east, it's that there is enough diversity of opinion on all sides to make broad brush strokes difficult. The script, which begins in pre-holocaust Germany and ends sometime after the Gaza war is built around parental instinct to protect children from truths that may be too frighting to share.

I was hoping that Intermission Impossible readers could take a peek at this script and explain to me why a play so clearly designed to be a catalyst for difficult conversations makes people so nervous and angry.

Remember, I'm not interested in finger pointing here or solving the world's problems. This isn't about who's right or wrong or who committed the worst war crime first. I just want to know what it is it about this slippery script— all 10-anti-commercial-minutes of it— that makes it so upsetting?

I think it's partly because Suzan-Lori Parks is right about how people like their "Lincoln shit." People respond negatively to the ugly voices saying shameful things like, "Tell her I laughed when I saw the dead policemen.” But who hasn't read the comments section of a newspaper article and noticed how often conversations are hijacked by the haters?

When I first read Seven Jewish Children it made me think of how people in America continue to fight the Civil War with with words: "Tell her it's about slavery. No, tell her it's about states' rights." I thought about Lynne Cheney fighting the creation of a standardized history curriculum for American public school students because she was appalled by the idea that western expansion might be presented as genocide by Leftist academics. And I thought about Suzan-Lori Parks and how Seven Jewish Children might make an interesting companion piece to Top Dog/Underdog.

More importantly, what do you think?

Seven Jewish Children: Thursday, December 1, 7:30pm- 9:00pm. McCoy Theatre Studio, Rhodes College

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