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‘Difficult literature is more important than ever’: why we’re bringing Black plays to Jewish schools

McMinn County in Tennessee recently banned their middle schools 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 thereafter, residents of nearby Mount Juliet held a mass book burning, during which they tossed copies of “Harry Potter” and “Twilight” into the flames.

 

The fear of books has reached a fever pitch. From banning books to book burnings, previously cherished texts are now seen by some as dangerous, particularly for children. The American Library Association reported an “unprecedented” 330 book challenges 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 quite different from our own. ​​

In a Forward op-ed, Edo Steinberg, whose family Holocaust story is one of many depicted in “Maus,” wrote that for individuals of different backgrounds to understand one another, we must read each other’s stories.

 

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

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

We’ve found that historical and contemporary subject matter, like race and racism in America, is most meaningfully accessed through storytelling, textual study and expansive conversations. Theater in particular allows us to connect more intimately with the individual experiences of characters and the actors who play them.

That is perhaps because theater offers a shared physical space between performers and audience members, and it is the most dialogue-centered of storytelling forms. As a creative industry, theater is among the most collaborative, with actors, directors, designers and — in the case of modern plays — the writer working together to tell a story.

In one unit of our program this winter, 11th grade students at a Jewish day school in Maryland explored August Wilson’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” a play set in 1927 that depicts an imagined day for the real-life blues singer Ma Rainey as she makes 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 to both. A central character named Levee — a promising, ambitious Black trumpet player in the recording session — believes he has a more assured approach to dealing with the same music executives. In a writing exercise, one student shared this reflection about the character:

“Levee appeared confident but was insecure on the inside. Often when people appear to be the most confident in the room, they have the most issues within that they are covering up. Levee is a very human character and I can definitely relate to him.”

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

 

The students’ English teacher, Dr. Thomas Worden, offered his observations after the class: “Particularly moving were the actor Ron Emile’s comments about how Levee wages battles on two fronts — against those who mistreat 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 commented to me that was the moment that he really understood Levee.”

It is moving to see students form a deep and appreciative understanding of various Black American experiences through August Wilson’s work. But it is also insufficient to look solely at one classic writer because, much like Jewishness, the Black “experience” is not monolithic.

As it stands, there is an overwhelmingly 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 such play, “School Girls; Or, the African Mean Girls Play” by Jocelyn Bioh, portrays a boarding school in Ghana in which a light-skinned biracial American student arrives, throwing a tight circle of friends off balance.

In class sessions on this play, students intuitively recognized the themes of acceptance and difference, offering personal accounts like, “I know how it feels to be the new kid.”

Amid this progress, we recognize that in some communities, the idea of diversifying school syllabuses 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 grasp shaking as they raise children in what is ostensibly a changing America.

This acknowledgment is precisely why nuanced stories are the most effective avenue to explore complex topics. When we vicariously live through a character’s journeys and conflicts, whether set against World War II, Jim Crow America or contemporary society, we shift from our increasingly siloed personal convictions to a form of witnessing and close reading that is grounded in compassion and understanding.

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

 

Many students and their parents are discomfited by the idea that they are complicit in racism. In Jewish schools, which are predominantly composed of white students, families experience cognitive dissonance when asked to acknowledge their privilege as antisemitism is on the rise.

And students of color and their parents, whether in Jewish day schools or not, often view DEI programs as institutional Band-Aids if they aren’t accompanied by consistent efforts to address recurring structural inequities.

In this scenario, no progress is made and all sides feel that they’ve lost.

The magic of storytelling, in contrast, is that it focuses on similarities rather than differences, and cultivates a kinship to individuals whom we might judge if we first encountered them in real life.

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

Through the plays that comprise our curriculum, more Jewish students will not only begin to understand the diversity and nuance of Black experiences in America, but they may also gain a foundation that helps 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 essential.

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

 

 

To contact the author, email editorial@forward.com.

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