Identity Debate in the Arts – by Jan Levine Thal

A few months ago, I saw The Doctor by Robert Icke in London. Despite starting earlier and elsewhere both physically and psychically, it’s a most appropriate tale for 2023. At its core, it’s about identity – Jewish identity, gender identity, racial identity, and so on. It asks the question – who can speak for whom? And it offers zero easy answers.     I would dearly love to review the outstanding production of The Doctor that I saw, but since many Americans will not make it to London this season, I’ll focus on the play itself, a sprawling, talky show that gives everyone a chance to hang themselves by their own petard and everyone else a chance to point it out. Yet it’s not a Ted Talk. Guardian reviewer Arifa Akbar writes that while it’s “unapologetically cerebral, it hooks us in emotionally.”      

Robert Icke, considered by some as “the great hope of British theatre,” is a 35-year-old white gentile (defined as “non-Jewish”) man. The play is an adaptation of Arthur Schnitzler’s 1912 Viennese comedy, Professor Bernhardi, and began its current journey outside of London a few years ago.     

As identity is key to my argument, I’ll describe myself: old, white, half-Jewish. Educated. Midwestern. I’ve written, directed, acted, produced, and crewed for community theater off and on for my entire three-quarters of a century, but most intensely for the past 20 years. A small caveat: community theater was depicted hilariously in Christopher Guest’s 1996 film Waiting for Guffman as a hokey art form with marginally talented amateur casts. Yet professional theater owes a lot to the real community theater, which is often where great plays begin and benefits from many talented actors and designers. Paying people–which is the main definition of “professional” — doesn’t assure top quality. But I digress. I started out with my bona fides and ended up with some strongly held opinions. This is key to The Doctor.     

Icke’s play begins when Ruth Wolff, the Jewish director of a medical institute, stops a black Catholic priest from delivering the last rites to a 14-year-old patient who is dying of sepsis resulting from a self-administered abortion. The incident goes viral, and everyone in the outside world — from random internet personalities to government officials — takes a position about Wolff’s ethnicity, gender, and sexuality as explanations for her decision. Inside the institute, which is doing ground-breaking research on dementia, Wolff’s enemies and even her friends vie for power as she insists that her decision was based on science alone. Lies and distortions slip-slide among observable facts until truth seems irrevocably lost and Ruth’s life is ruined.     

The audience keeps reconsidering what it’s seeing, in part because Icke deliberately cast actors who lack at least one of the characteristics described in the text. The Jewish doctor is played by a gentile, the black priest by a white man, women play men, and so on. A lot of critics disliked the against-type casting. Indeed, when I proposed the play to a community theater company, that was one of their first concerns. They said the audience would be confused. I acknowledged that when I saw the play I was confused – by my own assumptions.    

Questions of identity have wide implications for theater. For example, should a white director helm a play by a person of color? Today, most theater influencers say no. The sensibilities of a director of color will likely be more appropriate for the material. As my own doctor says, “experience takes up a lot of brain space.”     

Nonwhite directors have had few opportunities to share their visions. The arts, and specifically the theater, have always been ahead of the culture in supporting the emergence of previously unheard voices. We’re proud of that.     

Identity has become an important aspect of all arts. To me, 2023 is the right to time for art to step up its opposition to prejudice with the kind of complexity and nuance The Doctor offers. Yet, the community theater group has decided against it (even if it could get the rights), in part because the playwright is neither female nor Jewish. 

Antisemitism is on the rise in society but generally isn’t on the rise or even mentioned in the theater, with some exceptions. Paula Vogel’s Indecent and Anna Ziegler’s The Wanderers are both fantastic plays and there are others. So yes, I can find wonderful work by Jewish women playwrights whose work should be done. But only theirs?    

For me, the company’s concerns triggered very personal questions. Couldn’t The Doctor have a place on an American stage? If so, am I the right person to direct it? Is it enough that I agree with it and love its artistry, even though I’m neither young nor British nor white nor gentile nor male? The playwright’s vision feels concomitant with my own. Is that enough?     

Jewish artists often think long and hard about how our identity serves our art. Do we think gentiles can tell our stories? Can we tell theirs?     

I don’t find these easy questions, nor do I have easy answers. But I think that in 2023, they are important question to ask. 

Jan Levine Thal
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