entertainment

'One Jewish Boy': Playwright Stephen Laughton on bigotry, perception, and anti-Semitism

Laughton's powerful play is at London's Trafalgar Studios from 10 March - 4 April.

2020-03-03

I find perception really interesting. Like, I perceive of myself as occupying this weird space where I am both all and nothing.

I’m like this total socially awkward geeky guy who’s also great at being the full-on party kid. I’m supremely chill but also kinda next level extra. I’m this super romantic, telling my boyfriend I love him all the time pragmatist that’s also like yeah but loss is part of the human cycle, so if we have to deal we have to deal. (I hope I don’t have to deal. This one kind has me at soul level). I have a cat and a dog. I’m a Londoner in New York.

In the Venn diagram of me and what I write about, there is Queer and Jewish and Astrophysics and Identity and Politics and Violence. I am black and white, simultaneously. All the time. No grey. Examples abound and I’m also really impatient but have all the time in the world for you, though we need to get on with this cos I have shit to do today.

I’ve also fucked up my ankle and smacked my head hard this morning because I’m terrible at self-care unless I have someone else to care about, and then I’m all over that shit but my someone is in New York (with my dog – I miss them) and I am not, so pain. Physical pain. Abounds.

Stephen Laughton is the writer of 'One Jewish Boy', which runs at London's Trafalgar Studios from 10 March - 4 April

I’m staying with a writer friend here in London, I’m here to launch the transfer of my play One Jewish Boy into the West End. Said friend is one of the best people I know and I sadly stood her up yesterday (also some other friends – mortifyingly sorry!) because I ended up in the emergency room with this fucking ankle-sprainy-ligamenty-situation.

Isley got home late last night, came up to check in on me, laughed at my general fucking nonsense, casually called me an agent of chaos, then left. That stopped me. It is not my perception of me at all. I kinda thought I was all-up pretty level actually. Then, last year-some journalist who was introducing this piece I’d written about this other project I was involved with called me 'a provocateur'. Which is also not my perception of me at all. I was literally like, am I? And that is interesting cos what is the truth of the matter?

What are the realities of these perceptions?

Maybe it’s true. I’ve written a couple of plays that have gotten me into some hot water. My play Run was part of a season at JW3 in North London that made seven orthodox rabbis condemn the venue’s LGBT events (including my play) as a 'total contradiction' of Jewish law.

Asha Reid and Robert Neumark-Jones in 'One Jewish Boy'

I publicly called out bullshit and got into a spat about how to be Queer and Jewish and Proud. Because I am Queer, and Jewish and Proud. Ended up with some awkward conversations with the Chief Rabbis office who had the audacity to say my vehement response back to the rabbi dude who started the whole thing was the one that was out of order (because I spoke to the BBC and called him out – whatever, like I’m gonna stand for bullshit bigotry from my own community).

Then One Jewish Boy happened. And I wasn’t quite ready for the anti-Semitic onslaught, some of the scarier moments included letters sent to my house, and threats of actual violence. And of course, you just know, spoiler alert, that cos we’re transferring and we’re doing press and marketing and shit, it all started up again the other day. Great. Cheers for that…

And that’s ultimately down to perception.

There’s so much to unpack in both homophobia and anti-Semitism, how both are perceived: how, like all 'isms' and obias it's ultimately a poison, and, sadly, how like all marginalised communities we sometimes fail to find the common ground and more often than not forget we should be natural allies.

Harsher right-wing parts of the Jewish community condemn homosexuality over a vague passage that any decent semi-linguist can argue in at least three different directions, and some of the more left-wing elements of the LGBTQ community can’t get past an accusation of Israeli pink-washing, let alone take the time to work out the difference between the words Jewish, Israeli, Zionist…

Perception.

The nonsense about the play this week fell into two categories, one of them being 'misery top trumps': 'X is worse than Z so Jews shut the fuck up and stop moaning'. The other is more insidious: that Zionists caused all the racism in the first place.

The perception of Jew as self-proclaimed victim. The perception of Jew as master overlord puppet master. None of this is true.

Much like the accusations that were thrown at me as a playwright in the midst of the initial controversy of One Jewish Boy: The first as Zionist conspirator forcing a controlling agenda; the second as traitor Jew turning my back on my people/our homeland; the third as a parasite or sickness that must be gotten rid of, and the the fourth as master manipulator stoking hate to sell seats. None of this is true!

The first version of One Jewish Boy was absolutely a queer love story. The characters are still called Alex and Jesse, but the title back then was Dirty F*cking Jew. The words beaten into Jesse in the anti-Semitic attack at the centre of the entire play. It became really clear that the play was really about inheritances and I needed to bring a kid into it. I also probably needed both characters to be biological parents so I could really explore what inherited trauma means.

It was hard to let the queer story go though, maybe I could make them both women? In the short version we did, I did. It became clear though that there was also something about gendered violence taking on an added sexual element that I felt very uncomfortable exploring as a man.

The final nail for the queer version was my responsibility as a queer artist to be mindful of the stories I tell and the representations I present. So the LGBT community as non-ethical, slutty, addicts or victim just has to be out for me. There’s enough of that shit out in the world, we’re already perceived as such. I’m not adding to it.

So, the reality is that I had to make this a straight story. The structure required a heterosexual couple. It could only work in that context.

But I genuinely believe that there is absolute universality in the specificity. It has relevance to a queer community. I wrote a love story. Mainly because, in the context of being a queer man, I wanted a love story. It was filled with fear and pain.

Mainly because, in the context of being a queer man, so, to was I.

One Jewish Boy is at London's Trafalgar Studios 10 March - 4 April. For tickets click here.

Follow Stephen Laughton on Twitter.