Philadelphia’s InterAct Theatre Co. produces plays that “provoke conversation” about sensitive topics, according to a recent press release.
Beginning on April 1, it will take on perhaps the most difficult conversation in Jewish life: the Israel-Palestine conflict.
“Settlements,” written by Seth Rozin, a Jewish playwright and InterAct’s producing artistic director, is about “a resident theater at a Jewish Community Center which finds itself pulled in conflicting directions when it commissions a new play about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” according to a press release detailing the show.
Rozin wrote the play over several years after reading a 2014 Washington Post story about a similar incident, in which a Washington, D.C., theater director was dismissed from his JCC home after commissioning a play about Israeli soldiers killing Palestinians. Rozin said he feels it’s important to explore not who’s right and who’s wrong in the conflict, but why it’s so difficult to discuss.
He summed up “Settlements” as a meditation on society losing its political center of gravity.
“If we can’t have civil, constructive conversation about the insoluble problem, how do we ever hope to get anywhere?” he asked.
It’s a question Rozin asks in his personal life, too.
During Donald Trump’s first presidential run in 2016 and his presidency over the ensuing four years, Rozin grew apart from his oldest friend. The friend was a Trump supporter, while the playwright was not.
The two became friends in second grade, and it wasn’t until college that Rozin learned of his buddy’s conservative political leanings. But at the time, he found their ideological differences stimulating. He described his friend as “a Liz Cheney conservative” and “a principled conservative.”
“We could disagree,” Rozin said. “But I respected there were principles.”
But after Trump rode down the golden escalator at Trump Tower in 2015 and announced his candidacy, the playwright’s friend jumped on the bandwagon. Then, throughout Trump’s presidency, they started fighting via text.
They disagreed on everything from the 45th president’s stance on representative democracy to the meaning of Western identity. Their last heated text exchange was a little over two years ago before the pandemic even broke out in the United States, according to Rozin.
The men are still friends today, but they only really discuss two topics.
“We can’t have a conversation other than, ‘how are your kids and happy birthday,’” the playwright said.
There was never one “big, searing fight,” Rozin added. Just a series of heated, frustrating and ultimately unproductive exchanges.
“We know it’s not going to be productive. It’s not rational and healthy for us,” Rozin said. “I just find it deeply sad.”
The playwright still views his friend’s beliefs as “irrational,” so he didn’t base a character on his friend. He said he wanted the characters in “Settlements” to be emotional, at times, but never irrational.
“It’s something that’s thoughtful and provocative without being a grenade. I’m not trying to be provocative to be provocative,” Rozin added. “I’m trying to be provocative in a way that’s stimulating discourse.”
“Settlements” will run from April 1-24 on Wednesday and Thursday at 7 p.m., Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. Most performances at the 121-seat Proscenium Theatre at the Drake at 302 S. Hicks St., which is playing at 75% capacity due to COVID restrictions, will be followed by a conversation between Rozin and the audience.
The playwright said that’s the part he’s most looking forward to.
“We’re going to have some really good, lively conversations after the show,” he added.
David Winitsky, the show’s director, believes it will work because theater is an art form well-suited to asking difficult questions.
“Theater is a thick medium,” he said. “You’re going to sit, you’re going to be in it for a chunk of time, and that’s the only way to get into these conversations.”
Becca Khalil, an actor in the play, thinks that calling people out, out of love, can be an attempt to bridge a gap, and the play does call people out, out of love.
“I love calling people out, I love getting called out and I love engaging in difficult conversations,” she explained. “It’s the only thing that brings us together as people.” JE