Act II, Scene 1: H Street NE.

En­ter ARI ROTH with friends

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS & STYLE - BY PE­TER MARKS

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

AN­DRE CHUNG FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

PHO­TOS BY AN­DRE CHUNG FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

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.

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