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Wednesday, March 08, 2006

NY Observer's Must-Read

I swore I would try to get back to reviewing today. So many shows! Lieutenant, Hedda, and, yes I'm getting to Abigail's Party and The Seven. Before they close!

But I must stay in Corrie-land some more now that, finally, someone, with a louder meagaphone than a blog, is asking the right questions. I'm speaking of John Heilpern, theatre critic at the New York Observer, a paper doing some damned fine investigative journalism and cultural criticism lately.

Where to begin. In short this is a must-read and might make some news today, since Heilpern's interview with Jim Nicola gets him on the record in a focused way no one else has so far. To take bits out of context would spoil the satisfaction in reading the whole thing. But just so you get the idea...

Heilpern begins with the kind of befuddlement many will find familiar:

We’ve heard about unnamed Zionist pressure groups and anonymous theater donorswho object to the telling of a humane story about a utopian 23-year-old American girl who was killed by an Israeli bulldozer in the Gaza Strip as she protested the destruction of a Palestinian’s home. We’ve heard the theater’s cornered artistic director, James Nicola, talk darkly about realizing suddenly that there existed “a very edgy situation” that had taken root in the city “after Ariel Sharon’s illness and the election of Hamas.” We’ve heard it all—including the whirring sound of the New York Theatre Workshop backpedaling all it can to
rationalize its weird decisions.

But when I asked Mr. Nicola, as well as the president of the board of trustees and the New York Theatre Workshop’s managing director, exactly who—and how many—have been protesting about the play, no one could tell me.

So what does he do? Gets Nicola on the phone. From Italy. And he asks him a few simple--yet previously unasked--questions:
“How many members of the Jewish community in New York have made their feelings known to you opposing the play?”

“I haven’t personally spoken to any members of the Jewish community who’ve opposed the play,” he replied. “I have spoken to many Jewish friends who have had degrees of discomfort with the topic.”

Wha wha wha? This is what this has all been about? "Degrees of discomfort" and not "opposing the play"? How powerful do you have to be for your "discomfort" to outweigh so many others' certain "opposition" to the cancellation?

More questions:
“When you said in The Times that it was a ‘fantasy’ to present the piece as a work of art ‘without appearing to take a position’—what is the position that would prevent you from doing what you do?”

" … when I first read this play, it affected me deeply,” he said. “I thought it presented an opportunity to share with our community a powerful message that the good fortune to be born into comfortable circumstances comes with theresponsibility of conscience. One must always be aware of the misery of others and take compassionate action.”

He went on to explain that “there was much unsubstantiated speculation from different quarters on the circumstances of Rachel’s time in Gaza. It became apparent that by presenting the play on the current schedule this speculation might become the event itself instead of the play …. ”

I read this as: "Someone finally told me who Rachel Corrie was." While I personally never heard of Rachel before last week, it seems she has been real anathema to the pro-Israeli right (or self identified liberals who sway right just on Israel) for a long time. Again, the "true story" has caught up with events.

And, finally a question you won't (ok, haven't) read in NYT:
“What do you think your decision is saying to the Arab community?” I asked Mr. Nicola.

He replied, “We haven’t heard from anyone in that community, and I can’t speculate as to their reactions.”


If nothing else this exposure might inspire Arab Americans to start letting him hear from them. That is, if they're not afraid of deportation in Patriot Act America. Heilpern has no problem getting a comment, though:
“Maybe they’re waiting for peace in the Middle East,” said Maha Chehaoui of the Nibras Theater, a small Arab-American theater company in New York.


Again, a must-read for all who care about this topic. And for all who like to see some rigorous opinion journalism in the print media.


Anonymous said...

NYTW has taken down Jim Nicola's statement about finding it "stunning" that his postponement of RACHEL CORRIE has been "blown into a screed about censorship." The first step towards admitting he was wrong to postpone the play? Let's hope.

Anonymous said...

In his Feb. 28 piece in The Times, Jesse McKinley wrote: "James C. Nicola, the artistic director of the workshop, said he had decided to postpone the show after polling local Jewish religious and community leaders as to their feelings about the work."

Now Nicola is claiming that no such poll was conducted: He just spoke to some Jewish friends who weren't crazy about the idea of the play going forward.

Obviously, this raises questions about Nicola's credibility, where he's coming from, etc. But the question I have is: Does he really think that putting this nugget out there, a week into the controversy, makes the decision look any better? That he postponed the play, essentially, because it might have made a few of his friends uncomfortable?

It seems to me there are two real options here. Either Nicola has been just extraordinarily unsophisticated in the way he's thinking through these issues OR there's more to this story than we've heard, and he's doing a clumsy job of covering it up.

Jason Grote said...

I think the answer is, 'pretty unsophisticated.' I think got scared and handled the situation badly, and now is trying to dig himself out. This is not to let him off the hook or anything, but had he just been honest about the fact that he was scared, instead of trying to make it look like this whole thing was going according to plan, the reaction probably would have been very different.

Anonymous said...

It would be very unlike an artistic director like Nicola, who's been running NYTW for a very long time, not to have been aware that such a statement would have seemed naive. Which is also why I believe there may have been other factors contributing to his decision.

Of course, we can't read the minds of Nicola and the other staffers of the NYTW who contributed to the discussion before the decision was made. So yes, we will never know, but the conversation can't end there. I wonder how much this inadvertent transparency into the production and selection process at the NYTW, for example, reflects the way other theaters around the city are run.