Jewish DC theater maven Ari Roth leaves second company in 6 years over Palestinian content issue
By RON KAMPEAS
WASHINGTON (JTA) — Over 18 years, theater director Ari Roth built Theater J into a Jewish Washington, D.C. powerhouse that often debuted works by major writers. But six years ago, the theater, which was housed by and associated with the Washington DC Jewish Community Center, fired him amid claims that a festival he was running was too pro-Palestinian.
In the wake of that, he founded a new theater company called Mosaic. Now he’s leaving that company partly for the opposite reason: he says the theater insists on running a festival with exclusively Palestinian content.
He posted a dramatic open letter late on Tuesday on Medium announcing his resignation.
“All original selections for the 2021 Voices Festival, intentionally intercultural and programmed in order to work either in live or virtual performance — were thrown out in favor of an exclusively Palestinian-centered festival,” he said in his statement.
Roth says in the post that his management style was the principal issue, and he agreed to a three-month sabbatical in order to work on it. In part, the mandated sabbatical also was driven by an awakening in theaters, after a season of racial unrest, of a lack of diversity of outlook even in theaters that fashioned themselves as sensitive to issues of oppression.
“The staff complaints represented a mix of legitimate concern and more specious aggressions run through a White Supremacy Culture template,” Roth said.
The Washington Post quoted a statement Mosaic posted last month as saying, “We have programmed without consistent cultural competency, leading to harm of audience members and artists. We have been complacent in validating a siloed and singular leadership style based on the comfort of routine.
We have upheld white leadership to the detriment of BIPOC [Black, Indigenous and People of Color] artistry and expertise.”
Roth, who objected to the Mosaic statement, wrote a statement of contrition after his sabbatical ended, but found conditions at the company untenable, and so resigned.
The Washington Post quoted a Mosaic board statement that wished Roth well and did not directly address the controversy. “As part of this next phase, Artistic Director Ari Roth will be leaving Mosaic to pursue new opportunities. Following all due process and a full consideration of his thoughts, and with a sincere thanks to Ari for being the spark that launched Mosaic, the board of directors unanimously voted to accept his resignation. His is a legacy of creativity, drive and passion that helped shape this theater company.”
At the center of his previous Theater J controversy was his insistence on including material that was sympathetic to Palestinians and sharply critical of Israel in a festival he initiated called Voices From a Changing Middle East. He drew support in an open letter from theatrical luminaries, including leaders of New York’s Lincoln Center Theater and Public Theater, Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre and Washington’s Shakespeare Theatre Company.
Theater J, which denied his firing was political, allowed him to transfer the festival to Mosaic.
In his statement, Roth said he would be launching a new venture — and once again would be taking with him the Voices From a Changing Middle East Festival.