Outside the Gamm Theater on Sunday afternoon, a group of protestors from what they said is the Rhode Island Coalition for Israel were objecting to a billboard promoting the theater’s current production, “Bad Jews.”
Literature the group distributed said the theater in 2018 had canceled a production because an impersonation show raised “concerns about blackface…Double standard is the classic definition of anti-Semitism. ‘Casual’ Jew-hatred is still Jew hatred and it incites more Jew-hatred!”
The protestors were not asking for the cancelation of the play, but rather asking the Gamm Theater to “take down the BAD JEWS billboard.”
Inside, the theater’s artistic director, Tony Estrella, addressed the audience, a full house, as he does before most productions. He recognized the group’s right to protest, and also the theater’s right to present Joshua Harmon’s much acclaimed, but sometimes controversial, black comedy.
Someone called out to Estrella asking if he invited the protestors to come into the theater and see the performance. He said he had, but was told they weren’t interested in the play, presumably just the sign.
The production itself plays off conflicts between observant and non-observant Jews, centering on the death of a grandfather and a necklace, the Hebrew letters chet and yud (חי) that the grandfather had protected during the Holocaust by keeping it under his tongue.
I’ll leave reviews to others, except to say that the play exposes the conflict between the devout and non-observant Jews.
But what this does, however, is raise some relevant concerns. We are in a period where anti-semitism is rising, and terrible incidents are being reported frequently.
Those who see the play, I believe, can appreciate its message and its attempt to demonstrate the conflicts among the characters.
But how do people simply driving by on a busy Jefferson Boulevard perceive this billboard that s declares: “Bad Jews.” Would the theater display a billboard saying “Black No More,” a musical (one that didn’t get good reviews) in which an inventor develops a machine that turns blacks into whites.
A dilemma for sure. Freedom of expression demands that the theater can display what it wants. Human nature, in this volatile world, also tells us that feeding into hatred, even if that’s not the intent, potentially can result in, well…feeding into hatred.
In the end, I would err on the side of freedom of expression. It’s interesting to note that mainstream Jewish groups have not joined the protest by RICI, a group that describes itself as “independent, non-partisan Jewish/Chrisian activist coalition organized in 2017.”
An interesting twist to what is an interesting play.