When Ari Roth’s new play—My Calamitous Affair with the Minister of Culture and Censorship or Death of the Dialogic in the American Theater—opens next week, theatergoers will be in for a big surprise.
The play is a mystery in reverse, one that unfolds, mainly in flashback, in 26 scenes over a period of six years. Set on two continents—with action in Haifa, Tel Aviv, Chicago, and DC—the play features a cast of five slightly fictionalized characters.
The central character—Roth himself—is barely disguised. His name in the script is AD, short for “Founding Artistic Director Until Recently,” which is what he is and has been since his ouster 22 months ago from Mosaic Theater Company.
I recently had lunch with “AD”—aka Roth—at a local restaurant in Northwest, where we were joined by Debbie Minter Jackson, a colleague at DCTA and a dramaturg on the play.
We began with a discussion of what the play is—and what it is not. “It’s a roman à clef,” Roth said, using the correct French pronunciation, which few Americans do. “Call it a fictionalized autobiography if you will. It’s not realistic, but it’s geo-politically accurate.”
The play describes real events, in real order, but with some critical differences. It’s allegorical, in that it departs from fact to fiction. “I made a lot of it up,” he said, laughing.
According to Roth, My Calamitous Affair is basically “an autopsy for a dead production”—the production in question being a play called Shame 2.0, disguised here as Humiliation—and consequently “the beginning of the end,” though he didn’t see it at the time.
John Stoltenberg’s DCTA review of the 2019 production of Shame 2.0 quotes Roth’s reflective program note about the backstage conflict:
A funny thing happened on the way to the workshopping of Shame 2.0—I began losing control of a story that wasn’t mine. And by the middle of the second week of rehearsals, a script I believed was approaching its definitive state, turned out not to be: not in the eyes of the collaborators who mattered most.
Much of Roth’s new play is satire, with most of the characters, like the AD, bearing names that are inside jokes. Einat Weizman, for example, who in real life is the coauthor of Shame (and a descendant of the first president of Israel), is rendered here as Eilat Herzog, which is a play on the name of Theodor Herzl, known as the father of Zionism.
Miri—the fictional character based on Israel’s former minister of culture—is so far right-wing that she is called “Bibi [Netanyahu] in Heels.”
There is, in fact, a lot of humor in the play. The satire, particularly in Miri’s speeches, serves to lighten the pain, producing catharsis, which Roth calls the processing of grief through art.
Despite the humor, My Calamitous Affair raises serious issues. “It’s about collaboration,” Roth said. “Collaboration means compromise, not curtailment. And certainly not censorship. My goal is to try to create something meaningful out of the morass so that the audience emerges feeling elated despite the series of painful events.”
Because the play is so personal, the production has relied heavily on the work of its dramaturgs, a trio of “script doctors” focused on “decluttering” the script. Debbie Minter Jackson, a veteran playwright and performer, is one of those three, brought on professionally a few months ago. The group, which includes Adam Ashraf Elsayigh and Gillian Drake, has produced nearly a dozen new drafts since rehearsals began.
“Decluttering and dissecting a script is a lot like deciphering a code,” Jackson said, adding that her goal is to make a play, such as this one, more accessible to an audience that might not have known about all the events that led to its writing.
As a longtime member of the Black Women’s Playwrights’ Group, Jackson has been “decoding” other people’s work for the last 30 years.
“My Calamitous Affair contains so much history,” she said. “The AD is wrestling with what he believes is his mission. He’s been knocked down, but he’s beginning to come to grips with what’s happened. And he’s asking how it all came about.”
The answer is the heart of this play.
I asked Roth about his “blind spots,” those foibles that led to the real-life “calamitous affair.” His response was rueful: “I didn’t recognize the pitfalls of what I was doing.”
According to a recent interview with Roth in Washington Jewish Week, arrogance and a sense of entitlement may have contributed to his downfall.
Paraphrasing former U.S. Representative John Lewis, Roth added, “I saw a way of ‘making mischief,’ but it was both good mischief and bad.”
Roth’s new title is founding producing partner of Voices Festival Productions, a new company built on Voices from a Changing Middle East, the award-winning program he created some 20 years ago when he was artistic director at Theater J. A. Lorraine Robinson is the Voices Festival artistic producing partner.
My Calamitous Affair boasts an impressive cast, including Lisa Hodsoll as Miri, Karl Kippola as AD (the Roth persona), Anat Cogan as Eilat Herzog (playing Einat Weizman), Ilasiea Gray as a theater director, and Hassan Nazari-Robati as Samad Hussein, a Palestinian actor.
The director, John Vreeke, has many historical ties to the play, having directed both The Return and Shame 2.0 in their DC productions.
“It’s an overwhelming play,” wrote chief dramaturg and cultural consultant Elsayigh in a program note. “It treads geographies, diasporas, traumas. It interrogates the seismic cultural shifts in the theater…. It asks us to sit with our own culpability [and question] how we operate, repair, and restore in light of that culpability.”
Now in previews, My Calamitous Affair opens on October 6 in a new performance space carved out of what was originally the entrance and lobby of the Whitman-Walker Clinic on 14th Street.
Running Time: Two hours 25 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission.
My Calamitous Affair with the Minister of Culture & Censorship or Death of the Dialogic in the American Theater plays through October 23, 2022, produced by Voices Festival Productions as part of its Voices from a Changing Middle East Festival, at The Corner at Whitman-Walker, 1701 14th Street NW, Washington, D.C. Tickets ($25–$43) can be purchased online.
Full credits and bios for My Calamitous Affair are in the downloadable program here.
COVID Safety: Voices Festival Productions’ Safety Practices are here.
Ari Roth’s roman à clef displays his feet of clay (review by John Stoltenberg, October 8, 2022)