Jewish students studying black playwrights – The Forward

McMinn County, Tennessee, recently banned its colleges from reading Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel “Maus,” a work that for decades has powerfully introduced young readers to the realities of the Holocaust. Shortly after, residents of nearby Mount Juliet staged a mass book burning, in which they threw copies of “Harry Potter” and “Twilight” into the flames.

Reviews | ‘Difficult literature is more important than ever’: Why we’re bringing black plays to Jewish schools

The fear of books has reached its climax. From book bans to book burnings, once-cherished texts are now seen by some as dangerous, especially for children. The American Library Association reported an “unprecedented” 330-book challenge to libraries and schools last fall.

And yet, difficult literature is more important than ever. At their most essential level, these texts can open our eyes to circumstances very different from our own.​​

In an op-ed in Forward, Edo Steinberg, whose family history of the Holocaust is one of many described in “Maus,” wrote that for people from different backgrounds to understand each other, we need to read the stories of the others.

Reviews | ‘Difficult literature is more important than ever’: Why we’re bringing black plays to Jewish schools

We know this to be true because we have seen it in action.

In a program we developed, Exploring Black Narratives, students from 10 Jewish day schools study plays written by acclaimed black writers, then interview actors and directors who brought those texts to life on professional stages.

We have found that historical and contemporary topics, like race and racism in America, are most effectively accessed through storytelling, textual study, and in-depth conversations. Theater, in particular, allows us to connect more intimately with the individual experiences of the characters and the actors who play them.

This is perhaps because theater provides a shared physical space between performers and audience members, and it is the most dialogue-focused form of storytelling. As a creative industry, theater is one of the most collaborative, with actors, directors, designers and – in the case of modern plays – the writer working together to tell a story.

In a unit of our program this winter, Grade 11 students at a Jewish school in Maryland explored August Wilson’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” a 1927 piece that depicts an imaginary day for real blues singer Ma Rainey while making a record in a studio owned by white music executives.

Throughout the play, Ma strives to maintain her dignity and autonomy despite explicit and implicit challenges for both. A central character named Levee – a promising and ambitious black trumpeter at the recording session – thinks he has a more assured approach to dealing with the same musical leaders. In a writing exercise, a student shared this reflection on the character:

“Levee seemed confident but was unsure inside. Often, when people seem to be the most confident in the room, they have the most problems that they hide. Levee is a very human character and I can definitely relate to him.

Levee’s character may seem a world away from a white Jewish student in 2022 attending a private school. But this student saw an element of himself in Levee. And when a guest actor who had played Levee on stage visited the class for an interview with the students, those feelings of connection multiplied.

Reviews | ‘Difficult literature is more important than ever’: Why we’re bringing black plays to Jewish schools

The students’ English teacher, Dr Thomas Worden, commented after class: “Actor Ron Emile’s comments on how Levee fights battles on two fronts – against those who abuse him and against himself – and how he loses both I could hear a pin drop when he was talking about this, and one of my students told me that was when he really understood Levee.

It is moving to watch students form a deep and appreciative understanding of diverse Black American experiences through the work of August Wilson. But it is also insufficient to focus solely on a classic writer because, like Jewishness, the black “experience” is not monolithic.

As it stands, there is an extremely rich cohort of contemporary black playwrights whose recent works are accessible, moving, hilarious and penetrating. These works add substantial nuance to what it means to be black in the 21st century.

One of these plays, “School Girls; Jocelyn Bioh’s The African Mean Girls Play, however, depicts a boarding school in Ghana where a light-skinned, biracial American student arrives, upsetting a small circle of friends.

In class sessions on this piece, students intuitively recognized themes of acceptance and difference, offering personal testimonies such as “I know what it’s like to be the new kid on the block.”

Amid this progress, we recognize that in some communities the idea of ​​diversifying school curricula is inherently off-putting and the thought of one’s child reading a literary text that depicts harrowing historical events is deeply unsettling. Many parents feel their grip shaking as they raise children in what is ostensibly a changing America.

This recognition is precisely why nuanced stories are the most effective way to explore complex topics. When we vicariously experience a character’s journeys and conflicts, whether opposed to World War II, Jim Crow America, or contemporary society, we move from our increasingly siled personal beliefs into a form testimony and careful reading based on compassion and understanding.

While many schools choose to address these topics through diversity, equality and inclusion, these programs often fail. The field of DEI, which has grown exponentially over the past two years, aims to confront the complexity of racism and counter the prejudices experienced by marginalized groups. As research by Frank Dobbin and Alexandra Kalev has shown, standard, mandatory DEI training can have the exact opposite effect on participants despite the program’s noble intentions.

Reviews | ‘Difficult literature is more important than ever’: Why we’re bringing black plays to Jewish schools

Many students and their parents are baffled that they are complicit in racism. In Jewish schools, which are overwhelmingly made up of white students, families experience cognitive dissonance when asked to acknowledge their privilege amid rising anti-Semitism.

And students of color and their parents, whether in Jewish day schools or not, often view DEI programs as institutional band-aids if they are not accompanied by consistent efforts to address recurring structural inequalities.

In this scenario, no progress is made and all parties feel they have lost.

The magic of storytelling, on the other hand, is that it focuses on similarities rather than differences, and cultivates a kinship with individuals we might judge if we met them for the first time in real life.

According to psychologists Sohad Murrar and Markus Brauer, entertainment education is effective in reducing prejudice as the viewer becomes “immersed in the entertaining program”. By getting lost in a good story, viewers become “more open to the prosocial messages embedded in a narrative”.

Through the plays that make up our program, more Jewish students will not only begin to understand the diversity and nuance of Black experiences in America, but they will also be able to gain a foundation that will help them form more substantial connections and friendships. beyond their communities.

Given the reality that American Jews are increasingly racially and ethnically diverse, this foundation is critical.

As renowned literary scholar Jonathan Gottschall cogently stated in a recent interview on the podcast, The Gist, “Stories are not just at the heart of the problems we face; they are also at the heart of our only hopeful and plausible solutions.

Reviews | ‘Difficult literature is more important than ever’: Why we’re bringing black plays to Jewish schools

Reviews | ‘Difficult literature is more important than ever’: Why we’re bringing black plays to Jewish schools

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The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Forward.

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