On Nov. 4, 2021, London’s illustrious Royal Court Theatre released promotional material for the world premiere of Rare Earth Mettle by Al Smith. The play featured Doctor Who star Arthur Darvill as a rapacious entrepreneur intent on pillaging a salt flat in Bolivia for its natural resources. The character was called Hershel Fink.
Jewish theatremakers in the U.K. quickly took to Twitter, articulating the antisemitic implications of the name. Their advocacy went viral worldwide. The next weeks brought about a name change for Hershel (now Henry Finn), multiple apology attempts from the Royal Court, and an online firestorm that left no one unscorched. And at the center of that storm was Emma Jude Harris.
An American Jewish director and dramaturg based in London, Emma (along with her partner Adam Lenson) was one of the first activists to call out the Court. She went on to write an article about the experience for Exeunt Magazine and to engage in months of negotiations with the Royal Court as the theatre attempted to make amends. When I reached out about the possibility of speaking to her for an article (via Twitter DM, of course), she replied almost immediately. “Sorry for the aggressively fast response,” she wrote. As if I minded!
Even before the putative date of the interview, my conversation with Emma overflowed the measure. A lover of Shakespeare, Sondheim, and Restoration theatre, a quick thinker and joyful talker, Emma sometimes felt like a mirror image of myself. I told her as much, in a three-hour Zoom session that brimmed with digressions, cooperative overlaps, pee breaks, hunts for stray computer chargers, odes to Diet Coke, and frequent outbursts of profanity. To wit:
EMMA JUDE HARRIS: It was all the same day, in early November. We got an email from the Royal Court that said, come see our show. And then I read the most offensive description of a character in the world, which I can find—
GABRIELLE HOYT: Exactly! I was so struck in the promo video with all those shots of him in profile—
EMMA: The nose. The nose!
GABRIELLE: I kept thinking, it’s not—it’s not a Jewish character? No.
EMMA: (frantically scrolling her email) I’m just trying to find this for you, but…wow, it’s November and December, I guess we’re just being crazy on the internet this winter. Okay, wait, where is this? I’m sorry, I’m trying to find this for you. God. So I got this email and I showed it to my partner Adam and he tweeted about it, I tweeted about it—I’m just trying to find this for you—
GABRIELLE: While you find it, I think what’s really interesting to me at that moment—at least the way it was taught to me in my very U.S.-based education, I thought of the Royal Court as this historic home of the avant-garde, with a very progressive kind of dramaturgy. And I knew that they had engaged in fairly prominent anti-racism work. It’s just such a complex story…no, bad, I hate this!
Emma has sent me the original promotional email.
EMMA: So that was the—yeah, I know.
GABRIELLE: No. No. It’s very bad.
EMMA: So we got that email along with the promo trailer where…I don’t know if you remember, it’s like, “Power, money—”
I broke every rule in the interview book talking to Emma. I interrupted and yelled. I confided secrets. So did she. She told me a story about her great-grandfather, who pretended not to know Yiddish. Except for one time at a pool in Miami when, catching sight of an apparent stranger, he began to speak the forgotten language rapid-fire to the other man, tears streaming down his face. They knew each other, it turns out—from a long-since-abandoned shtetl in Belarus. In response, I told her about my struggles with learning Yiddish now—the impossibility of the Hebrew characters, the brain-tangling nature of a familiar yet incomprehensible tongue.
GABRIELLE: I’m so bad at it. I’m so bad. Like, so, so bad.
EMMA: I wish that when I was a baby with my soft baby brain, my grandparents had spoken Yiddish and Hebrew to me. It’s just this interesting thing. When did people start feeling unsafe? When did they decide not to carry it on? Where in the journey of assimilation did that happen?
For all our commonalities, Emma and I are not the same. I’ve spent my life in U.S. institutions, but she moved abroad permanently after a summer course at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, eventually earning a Masters from Kings College London and the Globe, and an MFA at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama. Opting to stay in the U.K. after school, she then founded Global Origins, described as “a platform for international, diasporic, and multicultural artists,” with collaborator Aneesha Srinivasan. Today the pair often serve as cultural consultants for drama schools and theatrical institutions who are “trying to get better.”
In addition to this social justice work, Emma also researches, writes, teaches, dramaturgs, and directs. She can’t separate her activism from her theatrical life and doesn’t try. Nor, when she speaks, does she evince much in the way of psychic protection. For Emma, thinking is feeling and art-making is advocacy. No daylight exists between these practices. All of her is exposed to the open air (and the open forum of Twitter). For Emma, this melding of the personal and professional is, in fact, the point. And it all stems from her Jewish identity:
EMMA: The joke is that I was raised Reform. I think actually you and I have quite similar narratives. I went to synagogue once or twice a year, but it felt like something I wasn’t interested in. It wasn’t something I thought about, which is the privilege of having lived in Los Angeles and New York. For the most part, antisemitism wasn’t on my radar and Jewishness was something I did to keep my mom happy. But then once I moved to the U.K. I got louder and louder about it, as a series of cumulative incidents made me realize my mistake in thinking about antisemitism as dead or in the past—black and white, as opposed to very much alive with us, and in color. A lot of stuff I encountered here had to do with the idea of a Jewish woman’s body. Weird things like, “You’re so pretty for a Jew.” And that began to converge with what I was experiencing in institutions. Sorry, I don’t even remember what the question was.
GABRIELLE: No, this is fantastic. You’re making me think of—there’s right-wing antisemitism. Nazis still exist. But then there’s theatrical antisemitism, which is its own thing, and then there’s specifically antisemitism within the U.K. I don’t know how to fully untangle this, since it’s so insidious and hard to pin down.
EMMA: And then there’s the white supremacy of pitting marginalized communities against each other. Which gets into a conversation of right-wing Jews in the U.K. who are white and allergic to Black Lives Matter and to any kind of intersectionality. It’s harmful and furthers the divisions between Jews and other marginalized groups. It’s just really hard, the nuance of it.
GABRIELLE: This conversation also makes me wonder about the wave of anti-racism training that theatres in the U.S. and the U.K. are attempting to implement, and how antisemitism fits into those frameworks, if at all. If it should.
EMMA: The thing is, antisemitism operates in a completely different way. It’s just its own thing, and it has been for thousands of years. It’s cyclical, and—have you read The Past Didn’t Go Anywhere by April Rosenblum?
GABRILLE: No, I haven’t.
EMMA: I’ll email you the link. It’s a really helpful framework for activists on the left that envisions anti-racist work that includes antisemitism. Basically there’s this idea that Jews are okay and tolerated, until they’re not. Like, Jews are often afforded a certain degree of privilege within a society and then end up scapegoated. In the U.K. Jews were doing really well in the 1200s, until they weren’t. But because it’s cyclical there’s never a reckoning, especially because some Jews are in a position of relative privilege within society right now. I think that’s quite hard to grapple with.
GABRIELLE: You are, at this point, quite publicly Jewish. I’m interested if that feels like a choice to you. Because for you and me, a hundred years ago, there would have been no choice. I’m curious if now, there’s a sense of agency within your being a Jewish activist.
EMMA: It’s so weird to hear myself described that way, but I guess it’s true at this point. I would say there’s a massive amount of privilege—God, I’m so bored by the word privilege. We need to come up with some more language to talk about privilege, because my God, it’s so reductive. I’m very keen to work out a new linguistic framework, but I don’t know what the word for that is yet—the word to describe how I’m able to choose whether or not I disclose that I’m Jewish. Which is something that many, many marginalized people do not have. For me, there’s a responsibility in saying it. If I didn’t say it, I would operate with a different degree of privilege in rooms, and be coded in a different way. Which is complicated too, because the industry is at the moment prioritizing and commodifying otherness. It’s complicated to claim.
GABRIELLE: It is! And something interesting about claiming it is, there are things I don’t like about myself, like being loud or outspoken, or looking a certain way, that when I label those qualities as Judaism—they don’t feel so weird and wrong. Which I think has been helpful for me as a person and an artist.
EMMA: My God, absolutely. The number of times I’ve committed faux pas here and I have to figure out, is it that I’m American? Jewish? A woman? And to what degree is this just my personality? And how can you tease out how much those things just make up my personality? Like cutting people off when I get excited, which is obviously a Jewish mode of communication—
GABRIELLE: —we love a collaborative overlap!—
EMMA: It’s helped me not to feel shame about those things.
These same nuances impact Emma’s involvement in the Hershel Fink incident. After calling out the Royal Court, a group of Jewish activists—assembled by Adam Lenson and including Emma—took a series of meetings with Vicky Featherstone, the theatre’s artistic director.
EMMA: Theatre has very specific challenges in this regard. The ethical questions about embodying a character and what it means to adopt body language and vocal cadence, and what that means when it comes to Jews. Casting questions, directing questions, the physical choices that come with acting—that all gets really, really complicated. Which of course doesn’t get encompassed in just changing a character name.
GABRIELLE: Henry Finn, Jesus.
EMMA: Right? This idea of Anglicizing the name, which is an act of violence in and of itself—the number of immigrants who felt forced to do so in order to assimilate. Spoiler alert: Even without the name, it’s still really antisemitic. And to ask actors to just change it, for the whole of a three-hour play—that’s what I’m still most angry about. The lack of duty of care for the cast, many of whom were global majority actors, after a period of deep economic scarcity and lack of work. Maybe this is a Jewish mother thing, but for me, a big part of directing is that duty of care. So the idea of throwing that entire group of people under the bus like that just makes me want to scream. Sorry, I’ve been talking so long, do you need lunch?
GABRIELLE: No, no, it’s amazing. Can we do a quick break, though?
Five minutes later we regrouped, with Emma now munching on matzah (“I’ve decided to have this as my snack, for comic effect,” she quipped). I asked her how she felt about the Royal Court now, with some distance. She told me:
EMMA: It’s weird. They don’t seem to be grasping that we’re so much more interested in accountability than anything else. The big institutions in the U.K., they don’t hold each other accountable. It’s just musical chairs with leadership here. They’re all worried that they’ll get canceled, so they just stay silent when someone does a boo-boo, because, you know—
GABRIELLE: They don’t want to get piled on when it’s their turn.
EMMA: Right. It feels like they don’t understand what making amends would actually look like.
GABRIELLE: It feels to me like they don’t think it was a big deal.
EMMA: No, no, no, they don’t. And it’s weird, you would think the stratospheric rise in hate crimes would make people realize that this is an actual issue, but somehow it doesn’t.
We spoke, too, about the irony of the Royal Court’s position as a springboard for new work, a longtime home of the avant-garde. In her own work, Emma sometimes prefers to look back in order to move forward.
EMMA: I’m really interested in things that are problematic—that’s why I work in the Restoration so much. I think as long as we do it with a healthy combination of contemporary perspectives—and perspectives that would have been silenced during the time that canonical work was being written—as long as we do that, it’s important. When I hear about erasing things from the canon, it’s inflected by my understanding of the Holocaust and questions of memory. I find it really dangerous to think about not doing something. That’s a big part of antisemitism within the U.K., actually. Most people here don’t know that Jews were expelled from England for 300-plus years. No one, including Jewish students, knows that Jews weren’t in this country. No one knows that Shakespeare never met someone who would have been explicitly practicing. We still need to do canonical work, but if it is done, we need to be subverting both the text and the way we gaze at the text. If the receiving body has already been deconstructed or interrogated, that already changes how the text lands. I think it’s a question of cultural literacy and familiarity. Hey, have you seen my favorite woodcut of all time?
GABRIELLE: What is it?
EMMA: It’s titled, “Fly from the Jews, lest they circumcise thee.” And I just think there are fundamental misunderstandings here, still, about Judaism, about Jewish bodies, about Jewish practice, about faith. Which is why Judaism onstage here has to be handled really fucking carefully. “Fly from the Jews, lest they circumcise thee.”
GABRIELLE: That’s the answer to everything, really.
EMMA: Right? Just fly! Fly from them!
Postscript: Since the time of this interview, the Royal Court has released an internal review report investigating Rare Earth Mettle’s creative process and “apologi[zing] unreservedly” for the choice of the name “Hershel Fink.” Of the review, Emma says, “While I have been encouraged by our continued dialogue with the Royal Court and some of the steps they have taken to address and eradicate antisemitism within their institution, I found their report underwhelming and lacking in accountability. I hope that this incident does not simply blow over but rather serves as a wake-up call regarding antisemitism in the arts. I also hope that marginalized communities continue to show up for each other to advocate for ethical, accurate, and expansive representation, as well as equitable and safe working conditions. Intersectional advocacy and activism is the only way to transcend the harmful white supremacist capitalist commercial models of making art and culture that exploit us all.”
Gabrielle Hoyt is a dramaturg, writer, and director. She is pursuing her MFA at Yale. @gabhoyt
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