Mosaic Puts the Pieces Together

The company of “Unexplored Interior” at Mosaic Theater Company of DC. Photo by Stan Barouh.

Last fall Mosaic Theater Company of DC launched its first season, “The Case for Hope in a Polarized World,” on the wings of lofty aspirations. The company’s press packet proclaimed: “Mosaic plays marry a love of ideas, character, conflict, immediacy and personal and public resonance, working with the finest actors in our city to create thrilling performances that matter.” The Washington Post’s Peter Marks chimed in, saying “Mosaic’s arrival has the potential to be the most significant birth on the local theater scene in years.”

Phew! Could any theater live up to such high expectations? Apparently, yes. Mosaic does.

From the start, Mosaic was no ordinary theater. After his December 2014 separation from Theater J in a battle for artistic freedom, Mosaic founder Ari Roth unleashed a vision for theater that’s not just inclusive and enlightening, but also transformative. “With calamity at stake and injustices still all around us, we choose not to hang our heads or look only inwards,” he wrote in the program notes for Mosaic’s first production. “We look up and out and mobilize across lines and divisions and form a common flank of humanity to beat back injustice and outrage.”

That’s a lot to ask from any theater, but with unbridled enthusiasm and a contagious passion, Roth needed just a few months to compose his mosaic. He built a fervent board of directors comprising many luminaries of the D.C. theater community. He secured an anchor position at the Atlas Performing Arts Center on Washington’s burgeoning H Street corridor. He won a $250,000 challenge grant from The Reva and David Logan Foundation, providing a match for contributions from a rapidly growing donor pool.

And in a master stroke, Roth enlisted two immensely talented and highly acclaimed partners: Serge Seiden, most recently Studio Theater’s producing director, and Jennifer L. Nelson, former producing artistic director of the African Continuum Theater Company and a 26-year veteran of Living Stage Theatre Company.

A Stellar Season Unfolds

Mosaic’s season opened on Nov. 2, 2015, with Jay O. Sanders’ “Unexplored Interior (This is Rwanda: The Beginning of the End of the Earth).” Spanning the 100 days in 1994 when Hutu extremists slaughtered 800,000 people, the play spotlights what Roth calls the world’s “shamefully passive” response. “Our task now is one of Corrective Remembrance,” he said. “Through purposeful, artful, authentic, humanizing and memorializing, we remember Rwanda as it was, as it must become anew from all that was lost.”

The ambitious production featured a 14-member cast, from former Helen Hayes Award nominees to bright young actors in their professional debuts. Against a landscape of haunting projections by Jared Mezzocchi, a pioneer in using images to illuminate a performance without overwhelming it, the players conjured the deeply personal stories of people on every side of the conflict.

Beyond the revelation of the actors on the Lang Theatre stage was the revelation of the people in the audience who mirrored them. Young. Old. Black. White. Rich. Not so rich. Every one emerged from the theater asking — most for the first time: How could this happen? How did we not know? How can we stop it from happening now?

For its second production, “The Gospel of Lovingkindness,” Mosaic transitioned from the global specter of genocide to the violence on the streets of Chicago — no different from random shootings in Washington or countless other U.S. cities. This gripping story follows the lives of two youths, one full of hope and one racked by despair, intersecting in a tragedy that has become all too common.

“The point is not this specific young man’s life,” said the play’s director, Jennifer L. Nelson. “The point is that it happens to other young men. … It’s a cyclical event, and until we interrupt the cycle, then we are doomed to just repeat the same things over and over again.”

In the Atlas’ intimate Sprenger Theatre, an ensemble of four astonishing actors assumed the play’s multiple roles, directing their monologues to unseen characters, to one another and to audience members seated just a few feet away. The intensity of the play was reinforced by the immediacy of both the actors and the fellow audience members responding to the performance, seated in a u-shape around the stage.

“Serge, Jennifer … our entire team is very comfortable artistically in these spaces,” said Roth. “Whether we’re in the 260-seat Lang Theater or the 88-seat Lab II, we’re making each space feel like home.”

That was abundantly clear in Mosaic’s third production, Aaron Davidman’s “Wrestling Jerusalem.” In a stirring solo performance, Davidman commands the Lang Theatre’s 43-foot stage with nothing more than his physical presence and evocative lighting designed by Allen Wilner.

Commissioned by Roth nearly 10 years ago, the play depicts 17 characters — Jews, Muslims, agnostics — in the trenches of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. As Davidman rapidly morphs from one character to the next, each of their brilliantly conceived monologues in just minutes crystallizes a distinct perspective on intractable tensions, whether ancient or as fresh as yesterday’s headlines.

If You Build It, They Will Come

Yet broad support and a wellspring of talent alone can’t seal Mosaic’s success. The company’s mission demands a diverse audience of thoughtful people with a hunger for theater that matters. Mosaic is not only attracting but also cultivating that audience through community outreach, led by a 12-member committee that enlists artists, academics and activists for “talkbacks” after the shows. “We’ve had a staggering number of really probing conversations, allowing for deep immersion into the content of the plays,” Roth said.  

For “Unexplored Interior,” Mosaic hosted talkbacks with experts in international policy, a Peace Café with Pulitzer Prize-winning author David K. Shipler, a talk with Holocaust survivors, an interview with the play’s author at the Library of Congress and more. “For Gospel of Lovingkindness,” The Washington Informer joined Mosaic in community outreach, engaging mothers who have lost children to gun violence and men who have banded together to form support networks.

“‘The Gospel of Lovingkindness’ was really transformed by the intensity of the community conversation,” Roth said. “We were able to touch the community with a sense of urgency.” This, of course, is Roth’s primary goal. As he’s written in program notes, “It is essential that our Mosaic maintain an active role in convening neighbors near and far for shared experiences of the dramas unfolding in our community.”

And the selection of plays itself draws audiences that are unusually diverse for Washington area theaters. “It’s very important to me how mixed our audiences have been, but they are different mixtures,” Roth said. While audiences attending Mosaic’s first two plays were notable for their racial diversity, “Wrestling Jerusalem” attracted an audience of varied religious backgrounds.

Though gratified by this success, Roth remains focused on the work ahead. “We feel very much on mission. All the work has been resonating with what we set out to do,” he said. “But it will take time to build a really robust audience. We have tremendous room to grow.”

Barbara Wells is a writer and editor for Reingold, a social marketing communications firm. She and her husband live on Capitol Hill.

Deidra LaWan Starnes as Mary and Doug Brown as Joe in “The Gospel of Lovingkindness” at Mosaic Theater Company of DC. Photo by Stan Barouh.
Doug Brown as Baptiste, Deidra LaWan Starnes as Mary, and Manu H. Kumasi as Noel in “The Gospel of Lovingkindness” at Mosaic Theater Company of DC. Photo by Stan Barouh.
“Wrestling Jerusalem” writer and performer Aaron Davidman with Mosaic Founding Artistic Director Ari Roth. Photo by Teddy Wolff.