PHOTO BY JONATHAN LURI E
A young author sees universal themes in his Jewish plays.
SHANE MICHAELS SPECIAL TO THE JEWISH NEWS
hile many American Jewish
playwrights choose to write
abstractly or subtly — if at all
q . ;1 — about Jewish concerns, the
University of Michigan's Ari
--; Roth deals with these issues
His latest play, Goodnight Irene, was
commissioned by the Manhattan Theatre
Club in 1993, and has since achieved a
grant from the National Foundation for
Jewish Culture. It focuses on the struggle
of a young Jewish journalist in New York
trying to stick to his ideals about improved
race relations in the wake of the Crown
Heights incidents. While covering the com-
munity problems, he uncovers inconsis-
tencies in his personal relationships.
Goodnight Irene is only the latest step
in Mr. Roth's steadily climbing career. A
full-time lecturer in U-M's English de-
partment, he achieved great success with
Born Guilty, the dramatic adaptation of
Peter Sichrovsky's docu-novel. Mr. Roth's
play makes Peter the protagonist as he in-
terviews the children of Nazi war crimi-
nals in Germany. Born Guilty was
produced at Washington, D.C.,'s Arena
Stage, and then moved to the American
Jewish Theater off-Broadway and to
Chicago at the Famous Door and A Red
"For the past 10 years of my life, I've felt
that it was important to write about things
that I knew well, and where I could voice
some kind of authority," says Mr. Roth,
"where, perhaps, other people were not
writing as honestly or as provocatively as
I might be able to.
"It seemed that there was a place for
me in the world of telling the truth about
Jewish struggle. I felt close to the sub-
ject matter and I felt like I had something
to say about it. I don't have as much to say
about other areas where Jewish play-
wrights may have traditionally spoken to
a broader-bodied politic. I have nothing to
say about the world of salesmen right now,
or a critique of the capitalist system. That's
not where my interests lie at the moment
and I wouldn't be speaking as an author-
ity on the subject."
Mr. Roth's plays have been influenced
by his "reconservidox" upbringing.
"For eight years of my life I went to a
day school that began as a Conservative
Solomon Schecter-based day school. I grew
up on the south side of Chicago which ex-
perienced a lot of white flight — white fam-
ilies leaving the increasingly black south
side — and the Conservative day school
merged with the Orthodox day school,
Shane Michaels is a student at the
University of Michigan.
Akiba. I was there during the merger so
we went from a fairly relaxed religious en-
vironment to a more observant one.
"In those later years, I received a very
Orthodox training. It was something that
I really didn't bring home with me, but it
was something that has stayed with me."
The earliest sign of Mr. Roth's inter-
est in the theater came at the day school's
high school, when he was worship chair-
man for the Chicago Federation of Tem-
ple Youth. "I was not a theater person in
high school. In our school, the biggest
clowns were the most successful per-
formers. Theater was a forum for hams
and scene stealers; it was not of any in-
terest to me.
"As worship chairman, I was in charge
of putting together creative services for
weekends and special occasions, and when
I think about it now, that was a little bit
like writing the book for a musical. There
were fixed pieces of liturgy, fixed numbers
that one would then create a unified ser-
vice from whether it was from found read-
ings or original material, and these
services invariably had themes to them.
"Who knew it at the time, but there was
a real element of construction to these ser-
vices. They were about building form and
performed meaningful expressions. At that
time in my life those services meant a lot.
And I'm sure that the creative element
was what was most compelling to me."
Mr. Roth attended U-M, where by ac-
cident he discovered playwriting. "It wasn't
until I returned to U-M after spending a
year abroad (1979-80) at the Hebrew Uni-
versity (studying Hebrew poetry) that I
stumbled into Milan Spitt's playwriting
class. I came late to the theater, as a seri-
ous student of it, and have been making
up for lost time ever since."
He graduated U-M in 1982, began
teaching there in 1988, and became a full-
time lecturer in 1992. His wife, Dr. Kate
Schechter, is on the U-M political science
faculty. The couple have two daughters.
Mr. Roth began developing Goodnight
Irene three years ago in reaction to a con-
troversy he observed as a contributing ed-
itor at the Jewish Forward.
"It was written in response to what I
saw as a shift in the Jewish community
with regard to black-Jewish relations.
There was a growing annoyance and ex-
haustion and rightward lurch with respect
to the black community.
"I found a metaphor for that shift in a
documentary called 'Liberators: Fighting
on Two Fronts.'" A black infantry bat-
talion was followed through several years
of World War II. The last third of the film
documents their helping to liberate
Buchenwald and Dachau.
C RI P PI P‘C
An Roth: Looking at Jewish themes.
"I found it to be a very moving movie,"
Mr. Roth says. "Then it got attacked by
Jewish newspapers, including the For-
ward, and there were charges that the
movie was fraudulent, that there was no
written documentation that this 761st
battalion was anywhere near Buchenwald
at the time of liberation.
"That movie seemed to fit the politics of
New York at the time: a resistance toward
making peace between the races. We were
in the wake of the Crown Heights disturb-
ances, (and) the Jewish community felt
that justice had not been served. They did
not want to cover over the wound, the
injury; they wanted to address it.
"So in Goodnight Irene, this issue comes
to the forefront of the action. The char-
acter of Ethan in the beginning is cham-
pioning the documentary and espousing
all of its ideals. But halfway through, he
becomes the lead critic ... (and) a great deal
of suffering occurs as a result of his criti-
cism. It's something that I wanted to
chronicle in the play and I don't think the
play comes out as a banner statement for
"It's so easy, these days, to tear ideal-
ism apart, (because) idealism is such an
innocent thing. It's that sort of core good-
ness that informs successful relationships,
whether it's in a marriage, or in a rela-
tionship between siblings or cousins or
"I think we're living in a time when re-
lationships in our communities are not
healthy and the quality of relationships
in our lives are less than civil because
something is being torn from the fabric of
our communities. I think my characters
are trying to retrieve something from the
past that can help them stitch the fabric
Just recently, Mr. Roth sent out the lat-
est draft of Goodnight Irene, and it is cur-
rently being considered by the New York
Shakespeare Festival, the Manhattan
Theatre Club, the Mark Taper Forum in
Los Angeles and the Steppenwolf in
Chicago. A backers' audition is being held
next week in New York.
"I've taken this draft as far as it can go
and I'm just anxious to get with a group
of actors and to start working on it," says
Mr. Roth. "I hope my next play will be
easier to write ... but I doubt it."