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Two weeks ago, Theater J made history when it performed a play on Saturday afternoon at its home in the D.C. Jewish Community Center. It was the first time the company had performed on Shabbat—-the Jewish calendar’s day of rest—-in that venue.
It was kind of a big deal, mostly because even progressive synagogues like Sixth & I don’t host nonreligious programming on Friday evenings or Saturday afternoons. But despite the whole making-history thing, Theater J seemed eager to downplay the break from religious custom. “Okay, we’re not going to make a big deal of this,” wrote Artistic Director Ari Roth (pictured) on the company’s blog, “because it was a quiet roll-out; a gentle announcement.”
OK, so Theater J isn’t trying to puff this up. But the decision to show a play on Shabbat is still interesting, and here’s why: It involves a lot of loopholes. For one, there are no day-of ticket sales, and no concessions can be sold, because of course, exchanging money isn’t permitted on the Sabbath. For the same reason, the company’s actors get paid at another time for that day’s show. And what about Orthodox actors? They can’t drive to the theater on Saturdays before sundown, and even showing up could be a no-no, since performing is essentially work. Roth says the JCC would make accommodations to actors who live farther than walking distance from 16th and Q streets NW. To the second point, he is blunt: “It ain’t work! It’s playing! You’re playing.”
This wasn’t a decision made quickly. “It was a multi-, multi-, multiyear process,” says Roth—-one shaped by the JCC’s Policy Committee and the center’s recently hired CEO, Carole Zawatsky, who looked at precedents set by other Jewish centers outside D.C. It began to feel like the right decision to make, not only because it met existing demand for Saturday matinees, but also because the playgoing experience could be considered apropos for a day that’s supposed to be enriching. As time went by, Roth says, “it was a project that found more and more proponents.”
Though, Roth points out, Theater J still won’t perform on Friday after sundown. Why? “We would in a sense be competing with people’s Friday night dinners, with synagogues who are offering services, etc., and there would be less cooperation in the community,” he says. “Performing on a Saturday afternoon, we are … competing with soccer and Little League, but that’s about it.” He plans to tack two Saturday shows onto each Theater J performance in this season, and next year, he wants to include the shows with the company’s subscription offerings.
So far, the decision has gone over just fine, the director says. After the first Saturday show—-a performance of the mammoth Our Class—-no one came forth, waving their fists, crying abomination. Roth chalks it up to slowly shifting tectonic plates in the Jewish community. Of course doing plays on Saturdays hasn’t been controversial, he says.
“You probably are thinking of the 20th century,” says Roth. “The way Jews do their thing is changing in the 21st century.” He points to the nontraditional programming that fills the pews at Sixth & I each week. “One person’s violation is another person’s spiritual gesture.”
Photo by Darrow Montgomery