“I am going to The Paradise Garden one day.” – Simon Schama’s mother, as quoted by Simon Schama in episode two of The Story of the Jews, BBC2, September 2013
Watching Simon Schama go through the history of the Jewish people is a privilege. I want to add, “and a delight”, but this doesn’t do justice to the complexity of emotions the programme provokes in me. I do delight in it, in Schama’s upfront pride in his folks.
I love warmth of his affirmation of his identity. Simply love it. I want my mixed-heritage British and American nephews, and my African-American nieces – and my white working class British nephew and niece – to take that kind of joy in self-affirmation. Celebration. Understanding. Most of all, compassion, and clear-eyed love. Real love is critical, in the sense of seeing all the flaws in the beloved and pointing each out in the most unflattering way. And yet staying in love.
Schama’s at his compassionate best when explaining the story of Josephus, the Jewish historian who started out fighting with his people against Rome roughly 70 years after the death of Christ. His side lost. The Romans destroyed the Temple, the heart of the faith, and drove the Jews into exile from their home – the starting point for the Diaspora that continued for two thousand years.
But when his side lost so catastrophically, Josephus became one of the spoils of war. A captive. A prisoner. A slave. But he didn’t disappear into defeat. He joined the enemy, becoming house historian for the Emperor Vespasian. A turncoat. A collaborator. The kind of person despised by all sides. The losers – his own folks – would only see someone serving the man who destroyed their world. The winners would see someone who betrayed his own people, a man who’s lost his sense of honour.
Schama shows a different side of Josephus. When the Romans dismiss the Jews as virtually worthless in terms of culture and history, Josephus stands up and sets the record straight in a long, loving account of his people and past, their art, their music, their faith. Just like Schama does in this series.
Why am I talking about this telly series in my theatre blog? Because I think growing up black in Washington, D.C., a city whose population is 70% black, has given me that same solid joy in my identity. If you grow up in a place where the mayor is black, the police chief is black, your doctor is black, your teacher is black, your lawyer is black – you never begin to believe that there is anything in this world wrong with being black. You know there are people with a problem called prejudice, but that is their problem, not yours. And you know how to make them sorry if they try to give you a problem. You’re not scared to do that. Because on the playground, there’s loads of other folk who have got your back. I went to a Catholic, fee-paying school, one-third black, one-third Italian, one-third Irish. And because I came from D.C., I never believed we were a minority – until I went to live in Colorado.
That was all long ago, and far, far away. But part of what I do in the theatre – even when all my cast is white, and the writer is white, and the theatre in which the production takes place is basically white, with a white audience – part of why I choose the plays and writers I do, is that I am always looking for the voice of the ones who don’t recognise that they are minorities. Or feel disadvantaged. Who aren’t afraid to paint themselves and their own folk, and the folk they come across in their lives, with clear eyes. Who don’t blink at reality, or retreat into a Rattigan-dream of a world that never was. Just because the times are tough, doesn’t mean we can’t have joy talking about it. The joy is in the telling. How we got over. How we survived. Building the Paradise Garden, here and now.