The Playgoer: Alisa Solomon

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Thursday, November 16, 2006

Alisa Solomon

For a cogent analysis of the threat posed to all art deemed "controversial" see Alisa Solomon's excellent piece in the current Forward. The main focus is portrayals of the Israel-Palestine conflict.

It’s important to note that most of these works did get seen. Back in 1989, Dance Theater Workshop stepped in to present El Hakawati’s “The Story of Kufur Shamma”; “Made in Palestine” enjoyed a successful showing last March at a gallery in New York City’s Chelsea area. And “My Name Is Rachel Corrie” recently opened in a commercial off-Broadway production, amid a range of critical responses,garnering especially favorable reviews in The New Yorker, USA Today, Variety, Jewish Week and elsewhere. What, then, is the problem? First, merely the perception that hawkish Israel supporters will raise a fuss produces a chilling effect and deters other work from being considered: Too many (and too often gutless) theater and gallery directors conclude it’s not worth the hassle to take on projects that might provoke a brouhaha. That, indeed, is the intent of organized protests, bellicose letters to would-be producers, and calumnious Web postings about, say, Tony Judt or Rachel Corrie that presenters find when, in response to a complaint, they Google these figures.

But the problem, of course, spreads wider than this one issue. This statement of principles is particularly close to my heart:
Amid increasingly polarized political wrangling, the arts can offer nuance, texture, individual felt experience and — even when the work may challenge our own views — a sanctuary from the vituperative din of polemics. Entering a gallery or a theater, even if it is to see a politically engaged show, is a way of hitting the pause button. We don’t leave behind critical understanding or contextual knowledge, but we do enter a space of contemplation, one where we might confront responses to violence or suffering — or to exuberance or discovery — that we otherwise wouldn’t know. And as we cross the threshold into an exhibit, or at the moment the houselights begin to fade, we make a tacit contract with the artwork we are about to behold: We open ourselves to someone else’s vision.

The "pause button" here, of course, does not refer to shutting the outside world out. Which is what James Nicola wanted to do when he first canceled "Rachel Corrie" pleading for more time so the work could be seen separate from the politics of the moment somehow. No, to me this means art must be a free zone to say the unsayable. Not just to speak truth to power, but even lies, since fiction itself is, to paraphrase Picasso, a lie that may lead us to the truth.

A work of art (like a play, or even a "documentary play") is not The New York Times or the Nightly News. And we need both in a free society, and we need to know how to tell the difference between them. If the two arenas have become so conflated as to make the difference indistinguishable, then we've got other problems.


Jaime said...

I love the idea of theatre as "a space of contemplation." Sort of that you have to wait two hours before you can decide (if you decide, and hopefully it will be nuanced) rather than the split-second judgements the rest of the world demands. Thanks for sharing this.

Anonymous said...

Hey, Playgoer. Thanks for the props.
Yes -- free zone to say the unsayable: I totally agree; well-put.

I especially appreciate the kind words here as I am likely to get a barrage of hatemail from some Forward readers (I'll let you know . . .).