Community theater and compromise

On Saturday night, my husband and I went to see “1776” at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly.

It was wonderful.

There are many lessons in that very simple truth. First, it’s about the strength and importance of community theater. It is both exciting and saddening to realize that there are far more genuinely talented performers than there are venues where they can put on a show, or audiences to watch them do it. It is wonderful to know that the JCC, in its dedication to the arts and to excellence, can provide some of these performers with the outlet they need to keep their high-level skills burnished.

It also is good for those background players whose skills aren’t nearly polished enough to carry a show, but who benefit from the joy of being on stage, and who can flesh out an ambitiously staged show. And finally, it also is good for us in the audience to know that we can watch good theater without spending a fortune on it, and that by doing so we are strengthening our community and its performers.

And then, there are the specifics of the show, “1776,” cannily chosen for this election year (even though it was picked before anyone could know exactly how wild and surreal this year would become).

“1776” is about the founding of this country. It’s about the way that the “obnoxious and disliked” firebrand John Adams and his elderly but still vital sparkplug friend Benjamin Franklin were able to push through the cause of “independency,” and about how young Thomas Jefferson was able to write the brilliant Declaration of Independence. Its details might not be exactly right, but its general understanding — of the humanity, fragility, and risk of the project, of the heat, boredom, and discomfort of the setting and the seemingly random pedantry of much of the proceedings — gives the audience a sense of what was at stake that summer in Philadelphia. We realize that it all could have gone very wrong, and if it had we probably would not be here now. There is no reason to think that the United States that cherishes freedom and through much of its history welcomed immigrants ever would have come into existence.

But one of the most striking lessons in “1776” is about the triangle trade that supported slavery, the North’s hypocrisy about its involvement. Even more deeply the lesson is about compromise.

In the musical, Edward Rutledge, then the youngest member of the Continental Congress, who went on to be governor of South Carolina (and was wonderfully played by Kasey Yeargain), is an elegant, drawling, Mephistophelean character who tells Adams (played by Doug Chitel, who shows why Adams was disliked without making him dislikable) that unless Thomas Jefferson strikes an anti-slavery clause from the Declaration, the South will vote against it, and against independence, and there will be no new nation.

So there, in the most stark terms, is the dilemma. Remove the anti-slavery language — realize that you are bowing to evil, and allowing human beings not only to be treated but to be recognized legally as subhuman, permitting them to be beaten, raped, and killed, to have their families broken up at whim — and you can have the new country you yearn for. A country, moreover, whose founding document asserts “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

There’s a certain inherent conflict there, no?

But if you do not remove the anti-slavery language, you are left with nothing. Slavery continues, and your fledgling country dies unborn.

We often talk lightly about the importance of compromising. We are half right. Compromise is important. But we have to remember that it is not easy, and it comes with its own moral price tag. Some compromises are necessary. Others are not. Wisdom lies in recognizing the difference.

As we look at the new political world we face, we hope that our legislators have the wisdom to know when to compromise and when to stand firm. 

About the Author
Joanne is the editor of the Jewish Standard and lives in Manhattan with her husband and two dogs, so she has firsthand knowledge of two thriving and idiosyncratic Jewish communities. (Actually that's three communities, if you also count the dog people.)
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