Caryl Churchill's Controversial Seven Jewish Children Gets New York Hearing

Photo from the Royal Court's February production in London
Photo from the Royal Court's February production in London

For a minor playlet, Caryl Churchill's Seven Jewish Children has certainly generated quite the brouhaha. In seven brief scenes, the 10-minute piece tracks 80 years of Jewish history--from the Nazi era to the recent Gaza invasion--in the form of a conversation about how Jewish children should be taught about what's happening in the world around them.

In London, the Royal Court's February production of Seven Jewish Children caused a tempest, with some championing the play's provocation and politics, and others calling it anti-Semitic. (Read our earlier coverage, or check out the script for yourself.) So it was with much anticipation that a crowd gathered at New York Theatre Workshop on Wednesday night to see a staged reading of the play, which was followed by an audience conversation (hosted by GritTV's Laura Flanders) and an encore solo performance of the piece by theater legend Andre Gregory.

The play consists mostly of adults giving one another instructions on how to talk to the children, from an early line such as "Tell her not to come out even if she hears shouting"--evoking the terrors of Jews in hiding--to later lines like "Tell her the Hamas fighters have been killed." The general arc of the piece traces Jews as the victims of persecution, later to become victimizers themselves through the conduct of the state of Israel.

The intentions at NYTW were good all around, but in the end the evening could best be described as "unenlightening." Churchill's script is pointed but unremarkable, and was not aided by an obviously underrehearsed group reading--the lack of a full staging served to emphasize the piece's polemics rather than its potential artfulness. The audience conversation that ensued was the predictable one--earnest, sometimes contentious speakers from various sides of the question citing history and statistics to support their view of the Israel-Palestine question, from left-leaning folks condemning Israeli overreaction, to the requisite nut-job bemoaning the tragedy of Jewish settlers being forced out of the Gaza Strip. While there was certainly energy to the event, at the same time it all felt rather familiar. Verdict: Art underserved, the Middle East still unresolved.

NYTW will host two more evenings of the play, Thursday's moderated by playwright Tony Kushner and former Voice theater critic Alisa Solomon, Friday's by NYU media-studies professor Mark Crispin Miller. Here's hoping that these two nights prove a little more vital.

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