Act II, Scene 1: H Street NE.
Enter ARI ROTH with friends
Just 10 months after his ouster at Theater J, he has assembled a crack team and a full-fledged company, which makes its debut Thursday
In the aftermath of his shocking dismissal last December after 18 years as artistic director of Theater J, Ari Roth doggedly embarked on plans for the next chapter of his career: a new Washington theater company. But he wondered how ambitiously he should proceed. Should he begin in a modest way, producing a short season with a small play or two? Or was there a bolder statement to be made, on a much grander scale?
The path became clear to him just before New Year’s, in the office of a friend. Before a performance of “Fiddler on the Roof,” Arena Stage Artistic Director Molly Smith offered Roth a $100 check as her contribution to his new venture, and two energizing words of advice: “Start big,” she said. Boy, did he ever take that advice. Roth’s fledgling Mosaic Theater Company is entering the city’s dramatic sweepstakes this week at a level of audaciousness few new companies approach. The upshot is that Mosaic’s arrival has the potential to be the most significant birth on the local theater scene in years.
On its agenda in the coming months is a season of eight, count ’em, eight plays, on a freshman-year budget of $1.6 million, in a part of the city, the H Street Corridor, that has yet to prove itself a sustaining outpost for the performing arts. The “starting big” begins the moment the company doors open to theatergoers on Thursday, for the first preview of a kaleidoscopic new play of epic dimensions, on a wrenching subject, with a cast of no less than 14 actors, by a virtually untested dramatist who has been toiling on the piece for more than a decade.
Roth politely shrugged off those who advocated beginning with a whisper.
“I could see in the trajectory of start-ups in our city, that start-up meant small on many levels: small audience, small impact,” he said. “Something that doesn’t grab the public by the lapels is a theater with no power. We create theater to have social impact, to be disruptive as well as productive. So you have to have some capacity, you have to take up space.”
The test of Mosaic’s impact commences at the Atlas Performing Arts Center on H Street NE, with the world premiere of “Unexplored Interior,” a play by veteran stage and film actor Jay O. Sanders. As its subject is a tragedy of numbing magnitude — the 1994 Rwandan genocide that claimed upwards of a million lives — you could say that the work itself takes up a lot of space. With its leaps across time, politically charged portraits of characters caught up in the violence or consumed with ending it, and its attempts to make some sense of senseless slaughter, the play aspires to the sweeping, geopolitical scope of a dramatist such as Tony Kushner.
“I found my own way back into world politics through one of the tiniest countries in the world — and one that no one understands in depth,” Sanders said.
Whether audiences respond to Sanders’s desire to make Rwanda better understood is the first big challenge for Mosaic. But it’s only the first. Roth and the staff he has assembled — including Managing Director Serge Seiden, long of Studio Theatre, and Resident Director Jennifer L. Nelson, who once headed the now-defunct African Continuum Theatre — have set themselves a daunting task, They’re building a company that is itself a mosaic, one that seeks to unite disparate elements of the city through its art. Can they find that elusive winning formula? The offerings of Season No. 1 speak to a complex mission. In 2015-16, Mosaic will try to capitalize on the cultural inclinations of the gentrifying, but traditionally African American neighborhood it calls home and, at the same time, carry over from Roth’ s Theater J days his interest in other parts of the world, especially Israel.
The diversity of Mosaic’s aspirations can be seen in the casting — 26 of the 38 actors hired this season are black — as well as in the programming: Five of the eight plays will be entries in a new installment of Roth’s longrunning Voices of a Changing Middle East Festival. These include “After the War” by Motti Lerner, the polarizing Israeli playwright whose controversial “The Admission” caused such a stir at Theater J.
Roth says that during his meeting with Smith, she reminded him that in 2010, when Arena Stage reopened in its spectacularly refurbished headquarters in Southwest Washington, she made her own initial splash with a revival of “Oklahoma!” that featured a Latino actor as Curly and a black actress as Laurey. Still, Arena had a lot more wind at its back — a storied past, a healthy subscriber base and a beloved musical — to help it promote a refreshed brand. Mosaic may not be starting totally from scratch, but the leap it’s taking is off quite a steeper cliff.
By Thursday’s first performance of “Unexplored Interior,” directed by Derek Goldman, only 315 days will have elapsed since Roth was ordered out of the D.C. Jewish Community Center, the 16th Street institution that Theater J is a part of. To have built a new company of this size in that time seems a feat in itself, especially considering the circumstances of his departure from Theater J, an organization he turned into one of the most influential Jewish theaters in the nation, if not the world. He and Carole Zawatsky, the DCJCC’s chief executive, clashed over Roth’s programming of plays viewed as less than sympathetic to Israel, titles that drew the ire of a small, ad-hoc group that had put pressure on funders of the community center. Roth’s firing provoked an outcry from noteworthy theater artists across the country, including many of his fellow artistic directors, who denounced the action as “blatantly political.”
“This was a horrific loss for him,” said Mimi Conway, a longtime supporter of Roth who earlier had resigned her own position on Theater J’s advisory council in protest of the decision to curtail Roth’s Middle East festival. Now a member of the Mosaic board, which has 24 directors on the way to filling 30 slots, Conway said it took her months to realize how deeply the dismissal had affected Roth and the damage it inflicted on what she called his “artistic trajectory.”
These days, Roth sounds wistfully uncertain about his relationship to Theater J, which just last week named Adam Immerwahr of New Jersey’s McCarter Theatre Center as his permanent successor. Roth has been back to 16th Street for several shows, including Theater J’s latest, Caleen Sinnette Jennings’s “Queens Girl in the World,” a work developed on his watch. But now he’s in competition with his old theater, for backers as well as audience. Although fundraising is going well — $650,000 is in the bank, he says — at least one donor from his Theater J days has told him he’ll give money to Mosaic only after Roth reconciles with Zawatsky. He says he’s highly aware of those who have come along with him to H Street — and those who have not.
“It is very interesting and fair to say that the Theater J/JCC crowd has been divided in support,“Roth observed, adding that he expects no more than half his old Theater J base to travel to the Atlas. “They are there to support a Jewish institution, and we are there no more.”
Mosaic is, in fact, not a Jewish company at all. It is, rather, in Roth’s mouthful of a phrase, “an intercultural, independent, uncensored theater company whose mission is social justice, powerful transformative art, drama and dialogue.” Its first season includes playwrights who variously are black, white, female, male, Israeli and of Palestinian and Lebanese descent. It will also revive, on Nov. 14, one of Roth’s signature programs from Theater J, the Peace Cafe, a post-show vehicle for snacks and serious talk, whose first topic will be how Rwandans deal with each other “in a post-atrocity world.”
To further Mosaic’s goal of inclusion, Roth and Seiden are recruiting an ethnically diverse board; thus far, seven of its members are African American, including bank executive Brian Argrett; Realtor and marketer Pamela Pinnock; and Carroll Johnson-Welsh, exhibition director at the Library of Congress.
Several others — including Andy Shallal, the Iraqi-born force behind the Busboys and Poets restaurant chain, Stephen Stern and Mosaic board President Debbie Carliner — are Theater J Council alumni. And still others, such as Susan Clampitt and Cathy MacNeil Hollinger, are longtime arts patrons and veterans of other theater boards around town.
The building of Mosaic’s infrastructure has occurred over the course of the year, in “cultivation events” and “friend-raising” parties at supporters’ houses. “There are a lot of people that were really passionately offended at what happened at Theater J and the way it happened,” said Nelson, who will direct Mosaic’s second production, Marcus Gardley’s “The Gospel of Lovingkindness.” “If Ari had established this company, I might have come along regardless, but the way it started, there was already a light under the kettle.”
If picking the plays for a theater season is tough under ordinary conditions, it’s even more exacting when the assignment also entails hiring a staff, raising all the money and even finding the theater. Most of Mosaic’s season will be in the rented spaces of the Atlas, a movie house restored by pioneering philanthropist Jane Lang that was an early anchor for H Street’s redevelopment; in a sign of the goodwill Roth has built among colleagues, a couple of other Mosaic productions are booked into spaces at Arena and Woolly Mammoth Theatre.
“I’ve been energized by H Street,” said Seiden, who has added to his duties the command of Mosaic’s business side, even as he also handles a directing assignment at Studio this fall, two of Richard Nelson’s quartet of “Apple Family Plays” — in which “Unexplored Interior” author Sanders was a star off-Broadway, along with his wife, Maryann Plunkett. “Strangely enough, it reminds me so much of what it was like to be working on 14th Street 10 years ago,” Seiden added, referring to when the renaissance of the Logan Circle neighborhood around Studio took off.
It was principal ly Roth, though, who chose Mosaic’s first season and decided to begin with the script that Sanders submitted to him about 18 months ago. Roth didn’t think it was right for Theater J at the time, but reconsidered when he was forming the new company and found it to be “the perfect fusion of content and community and theme .”
“Unexplored Interior” filters the story of the wholesale slaughter of the Tutsis by Rwanda’s majority ethnic group, the Hutus, through a gallery of characters Western and African. But for the playwright, the effort to address the genocide began as an exercise in creating a one-man play for himself. Curious about how the world had ignored Rwanda until it was too late, the actor became fascinated by the story of Roméo Dallaire, Canadian commander of a United Nations peacekeeping force in Rwanda at the time of the genocide, who fell into depression in the following years.
“You’re cloistered at home in front of the TV, and you’re watching the genocide unfold, as much as they would unfold it in front of us,” Sanders recalled, of the chaotic reporting back in 1994.“They’re telling us the [Rwandan] president’s plane had gone down and suddenly they’re killing each other. It’s beyond our understanding.”
Long interested in African affairs — his father, James Olcott Sanders, was a top official of the Quakers’ American Friends Service Committee who traveled extensively in Africa — Sanders attended a 2004 memorial service marking the 10th anniversary of the tragedy in Rwanda and came away energized about a broader play. “Jay said, ‘We’re missing the voice of Africa,’” recalled his friend James Glossman, a Yale Drama School-trained director who worked on and staged readings of the iterations of the play over the years, including a reading last year at New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage.
The play’s extended gestation has given Sanders a chance to do massive amounts of digging — and to search for whose voice in particular he wanted to be central. He ultimately settled on a character named Raymond, a young Rwandan cameraman living in the United States who returns to his homeland, and is here played by Desmond Bing, a 2009 graduateof the North Carolina School of the Arts. The cast also includes Erika Rose, Michael Anthony Williams, Jeff Allin, Bill Grimmette and Jefferson A. Russell.
Starting this big has everyone a little anxious. “It’s pretty radical, actually,” said director Goldman. “This is not for the faint of heart, not only in the normal content ways, but literally in how one brings the story to the stage with clarity and force.” Roth and company may, in fact, be setting their sights high, but they also are trying to keep their expectations reasonable: The first season budget projections are based on selling only 35 percent of the available seats.
“The really bullish part of me thinks it’s really historic what we’re doing,” Roth said. “But this is a business that humbles you.”
“Strangely enough, it reminds me so much of what it was like to be working on 14th Street 10 years ago.”
SERGE SEIDEN, a Studio Theatre veteran and now Mosaic’s managing director
TOP: “Unexplored Interior” cast members, from left, Jeff Allin, CatReen Bunyanyezi, Desmond Bing, Bill Grimmette, Erika Rose, John Lescault and Michael Anthony Williams.
BELOW: Director Derek Goldman, center, works with Michael Anthony Williams and Cat-Reen Bunyanyezi during a rehearsal for Mosaic’s first production, whose previews begin 10 months after Roth’s firing at Theater J.
ABOVE: Mosaic Theater Company founder Ari Roth, left, and “Unexplored Interior” author Jay O. Sanders on the play’s incomplete set.