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Jewish theatremakers speak out against cultural appropriation on stage – your views, August 22

Falsettos was revived on Broadway in 2016 with several Jewish cast members, but the forthcoming London production lacks Jewish representation. Photo: Joan Marcus
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In the past few years, theatre has rightly begun to take a long, hard look at diversity, on and off stage. Theatres, production companies, industrial organisations and new writing competitions have adopted diversity policies. Transgressions in casting and cultural appropriation have been brought into the spotlight. In 2017, crowds of people picketed the Print Room for using yellowface. In 2018, more than 90 theatres signed up to BECTU’s Theatre Diversity Action Plan. There have been undeniably positive strides in the right direction. We celebrate the hard-won recognition these communities have achieved and, in solidarity, found these political actions inspiration for the action we need to take for the Jewish community.

Jews are omitted from this important and necessary conversation. Does being Jewish constitute a minority? Statistically, yes. After all, only 0.5% of the UK population is Jewish. So why doesn’t it seem as if Jews are being treated as a protected minority within the industry? Why does it feel as if Jewish artists aren’t being sufficiently represented on and off stage? Why does it seem as if stereotyping still prevails and Jewish stories are being erased?

Where were the protests over Jewface when non-Jewish performers played the following Jewish roles, to name but a few: James McArdle as Louis (Angels in America, National Theatre), Simon Russell Beale as Chaim Lehman (The Lehman Trilogy, NT), Lauren Ward as Rose Stopnick Gellman (Caroline, Or Change, Hampstead), Stephen Mangan as Goldberg (The Birthday Party, Harold Pinter Theatre), Ian McDiarmid as Shylock (The Merchant of Venice, Almeida), Sheridan Smith as Fanny Brice (Funny Girl, Menier Chocolate Factory). This is not a criticism of these actors, but a question aimed at the authenticity of apparent Jewish performances.

Funny Girl review at the Menier Chocolate Factory, London – ‘Sheridan Smith succeeds’

Let’s go deeper. Take the upcoming production of Falsettos at the Other Palace. Falsettos is an undeniably Jewish show. It contains characters, story beats, events, humour and references that don’t just reference Judaism but rely on it. Its opening number is Four Jews in a Room Bitching. It contains lines such as “we’re watching Jewish boys who cannot play baseball play baseball”, lampooning the stereotype that Jews are weak and not sporty. The plot is centred around a boy’s bar mitzvah.

However, to the best of our knowledge, no one in the cast of the UK premiere is Jewish, and neither is the director or anyone on the team. At best, this demonstrates a startling lack of cultural sensitivity and at worst, overt appropriation and erasure of a culture and religion increasingly facing a crisis. In contrast, in the 2016 Broadway revival, two of the cast were Jewish and the show’s Jewish book writer also served as its director; the production did have non-Jewish actors playing Jews but they were cast alongside those with the authentic, lived experience to ensure cultural accuracy and sensitivity. In the current UK production, there is no way of ensuring this.

This is not to say that every actor has to share the same religion, background or heritage as the role they are cast to play. But it seems evident that Falsettos needs Jewish representation within the rehearsal room to be made with the respect and consultation of those whose stories it seeks to tell and whose cultural heritage it looks to portray. Rehearsal rooms absent of living Jewish voices are in danger of viewing Judaism like a distant, historical, foreign element rather than a vibrant, contemporary and deeply relevant culture.

Jewface is a heightened and characteristic (mis)representation of Jews built on a secondary understanding of tropes, ticks, mannerisms and vocal affectation that has no awareness of the primary factors such as psychology, geography, culture and history that have framed these outward signifiers of Judaism. Jewishness is easy to caricature and this seems all the more disappointing when Jewish representation is absent and the ability of Jews to tell or contribute to their own stories is dismissed. Caricatures feed into stereotypes and stereotypes feed into prejudice. This is not to say that non-Jewish actors cannot accurately and sensitively represent Judaism on stage, but rooms that appropriate and erase Judaism are unacceptable; there is an obvious correlation between reduced representation in the creative process and increased misrepresentation in the product.

It could be argued that because the writers are Jewish, representation has been achieved. However, understanding and representation of Judaism is very different in New York and London. Anti-Semitism is also being seen and felt differently in different countries. We believe we should allow and invite Jewish artists and perspectives on work that includes culture and stories that relate to them.

In 2019, in London, it seems impossible that a production of a show as obviously concerned with Jewish religion and culture as Falsettos could announce a cast with no Jewish representation whatsoever. Even more troubling is the way the theatre industry as a whole has failed to notice this glaring omission – or perhaps has failed to care. In a time of increasing anti-Semitism, of verbal and physical attacks on Jewish people and wholesale, violent shootings in synagogues, Jewish schools and cultural centres forced to be protected by security guards, it feels more crucial now than ever to make accurate representation of and cultural sensitivity around Judaism a priority in theatre.

To the producers of Falsettos and any future productions of plays that depict Jews, Jewish culture and Jewish identity: we implore you to show sensitivity, engage with the Jewish community and hire Jewish performers and artists to work on and off stage. Make sure there is a Jewish presence in your rehearsal room. Include us in these conversations of cultural and racial appropriation. Consider how you can depict Jews and Jewish culture without reinforcing cultural and racial stereotypes. Your show will be all the stronger for it.

Miriam Margolyes, Maureen Lipman, Elijah Moshinsky, Adam Lenson, Sarah Sigal, Stephen Laughton, Guy Woolf, Lee Ravitz, Frances Rifkin, Abigail Symons, Emma Jude Harris, Josh Seymour, Sam Brown, Helen Monks, Isla van Tricht, Joel Fisher, Emily Rose Simons, Tamar Saphra, Tash Hyman, Noga Flaishon, Freyja Winterson, Rachel Hosker

Email your views to alistair@thestage.co.uk. Please mark your email as ‘for publication’. The Stage reserves the right to edit letters for publication.

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