Review: Seven Jewish Children by Cambiare Productions
by Michael Meigs
The speech for World Theatre Day written by Brazilian author Augusto Boal was read by Robert Faires of the Austin Chronicle. Boal's comments are brief, but they sum up a lifetime of theatre, political activism and teaching, following his arrest by the Brazilian military government in 1972 and twelve years in exile. Boal's principal concept is expressed immediately in the opening:
All human societies are “spectacular” in their daily life and produce “spectacles” at special moments. They are “spectacular” as a form of social organization and produce “spectacles” like the one you have come to see.
Even if one is unaware of it, human relationships are structured in a theatrical way. The use of space, body language, choice of words and voice modulation, the confrontation of ideas and passions, everything that we demonstrate on the stage, we live in our lives. We are theatre! . . . .
One of the main functions of our art is to make people sensitive to the “spectacles” of daily life in which the actors are their own spectators, performances in which the stage and the stalls coincide. We are all artists. By doing theatre, we learn to see what is obvious but what we usually can’t see because we are only used to looking at it. What is familiar to us becomes unseen: doing theatre throws light on the stage of daily life.
About 30 persons came to the Dougherty Arts Center for the Theatre Day commemoration, the staged reading of Caryl Churchill's Seven Jewish Children, and the discussion of the play. The group was diverse. By the end of the event we'd encountered students, actors, a playwright, the organizers, a Jewish couple in their late 60s, a Palestinian man, a Frenchwoman and two women from Palestine.
Seven Jewish Children is a stark piece of only about 170 lines, divided into seven sections of unequal length. Playing time is hardly ten minutes, and one can scan the text in far less than that. The .pdf version available on-line from the Royal Court Theatre contains no stage directions, other than the comment that the piece may be read or performed without fee anywhere, by any number of people. The text used by the actors and director Travis Bedard of Cambiare Productions contained the stipulation that no children are to be visible onstage.
Each of the sections consists of imperatives, principallly "Tell her. . . " or "Don't tell her. . . ." and it becomes evident that the sections deal sequentially with recent Jewish history. No speakers are assigned. Earlier sections do not mention place names or, in fact, any proper names. Churchill crafted them to represent the debate within families about what to say to children during, successively, times of pogroms, the period immediately following the Holocaust, departure for Israel, early days of a family's settlement, the first Arab-Israeli war (a section of only five lines), conflicts and clashes in recent years between Jews and Arabs, and the months-long Israeli attack into Gaza that began in late December, 2008.
Churchill wrote this piece in February, 2009, as the violence continued in Gaza, and it was staged by The Royal Court Theatre. Controversy was immediate and extensive, further fueled when the BBC declined to broadcast the work, deeming it to be a political statement that, for fairness, would have to be rebutted.
The debate continues. This morning's Wall Street Journal carries an op-ed by "Global View" columnist Bret Stephens titled "The Stages of Anti-Semitism," in which he calls the piece a manipulation of history, a mockery of Jewish claims to statehood, "an obsessive criticism of Israel that seems to borrow freely from the classic anti-Semitic repertoire," and "trite agitprop, a cultural blip on the vast American stage."
Hmm. The words of the text must have been the same, but Stephens' terms do not describe the piece that we witnessed at the Dougherty. During the discussion afterward, the woman of the Jewish couple seated next to me raised her hand: "I thought this was supposed to be anti-Semitic. What's anti-Semitic about it?"
That reaction served as a reminder of the power of interpretation, staging, and performance.
Bedard placed his actors in a line in the semi-dark at the back of the playing area and brought them forward, usually in pairs, to address a woman of child-bearing age seated at a table. Lit candles suggested ceremony; the insistent, often contradictory imperatives of advice or admonition entered an intimate space.
The actors came at her in insistent single-line exchanges, in the powerful dramatic technique of stichomythia, recalling the formal staging of Greek tragedy.
The mother sat silent and impassive, listening to the well-meaning, worried, angry or confused advice. The brief lines concerning the Arab-Israeli War look harshly triumphant on the page. In this production they were delivered quietly by a man who kneels next to her, evidencing instead a sense of loss for their son, the girl's brother, a soldier killed in battle.
The actors formed a semi-circle about her in the final scene, concerning the then-ongoing attack on Gaza, with advice ranging from the banal ("Tell her she can watch cartoons") to the horrific ("Tell her the Hamas fighters have been killed"/"Don't tell her about the family of dead girls"). The mother rises and in visibly contained fury replies with the only lengthy speech of the piece.
She addresses her interlocutors, one by one, refuting advice. She is terrible in her rage:
- - Tell her, tell her about the army, tell her to be proud of the army.
- - Tell her about the family of dead girls, tell her their names why not, tell her the whole world knows why shouldn’t she know?
- -Tell her there’s dead babies, did she see babies? tell her she’s got nothing to be ashamed of. Tell her they did it to themselves. Tell her they want their children killed to make people sorry for them, tell her I’m not sorry for them, tell her not to be sorry for them, tell her we’re the ones to be sorry for, tell her they can’t talk suffering to us.
- - Tell her we’re the iron fist now, tell her it’s the fog of war, tell her we won’t stop killing them till we’re safe, tell her I laughed when I saw the dead policemen,
- - Tell her they’re animals living in rubble now, tell her I wouldn’t care if we wiped them out, the world would hate us is the only thing, tell her I don’t care if the world hates us, tell her we’re better haters, tell her we’re chosen people,
- - Tell her I look at one of their children covered in blood and what do I feel? tell her all I feel is happy it’s not her.
The concluding replies to her are inept, dithering and wishful:
- - Don’t tell her that.
- - Tell her we love her.
- - Don’t frighten her.
The words of that concluding speech are horrible, and we in our safe homes and offices reject the hatred and inhumanity contained in them. But the director and actors in this staging provide action and motivation that explain them. They use Churchill's words to depict human confusion, adult duplicity and wishful thinking, and the many possible reactions to horror, threat and trauma. This production, to my eyes, was no indictment of Israel or of the Jewish people. It was principally an exploration of rationalizations that any family will make in the effort to shield, save and protect their innocent children.
Churchill plainly had a political goal as she wrote the piece, and to the extent that it has spurred controversy and debate, she has succeeded in that political goal. She stipulated that funds collected at performances are to be donated to Medical Aid for Palestinians.
Augusto Boal is quoted as saying, "Oppression is a relationship in which there is only monologue. Not dialogue." By co-producing this potentially controversial play, the Austin Circle of Theatres took the risk for dialogue. That dialogue occurred in a post-show discussion moderated by Robert Faires that brought thoughtful, measured, cordial and expressive comments from spectators, actors, and sponsors.
Video from Cambiare Productions, as streamed to the web that evening (19 min, 43 sec)-- includes Bedard's intro, Robert Faires' reading of speech, and performance of Seven Jewish Children.
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Marking World Theatre Day 2019, a staged reading.