The engine which runs “After the Revolution,” a play by Amy Herzog that will show at Theater J (the theater of Washington’s Jewish Community Center) through October 6, is a generations-old betrayal: A fledgling leftist activist from a family of Communist Jews learns that her much-honored grandfather spied for the Soviet Union during World War II and then perjured himself in front of HUAC denying it.
The revelation shatters Emma Joseph’s trust in her family and in her own righteousness, and, because she’s the founder of a legal defense fund for Mumia Abu-Jamal which she named after her grandfather, it threatens her career. As her family struggles to deal with her intense reaction to this news from the Venona decryptions and their own conflicted, complicit responses to it, further family secrets and resentments get unearthed.
Emma and her family never quite arrive at a full reckoning, but there is enough meat here to make the play well worth seeing if you have any interest in its subject matter. Be sure to have somewhere you can go afterward for drinks and arguments. (I am only half a Jew, but I had at least three opinions about this play all by myself!)
The sets are fantastic—the best I’ve seen from Theater J. The furniture is all upper-class tasteful normality, but the floor is broken up with glossy, dark panels strewn with big red roses, and the backdrop looks like a falling curtain until you realize that it’s a rippling red flag.
The acting is a bit uneven, but some of that is because the characters tend toward one note: Megan Anderson is wonderful as Emma, the firebrand “good daughter” of the family, but she spends almost the entire play either confused or wounded. She’s great at staring out at you with these big Bambi eyes, but a little of that is a lot.
I thought the best acting came from Elizabeth Jernigan as her sister Jess, the black sheep of this Red family, a recovering addict who is the only person in the whole family who seems to have experience with acknowledging her failures. The sisters share a great bit where Emma is about to confront their father, and they lean toward each other, unconsciously mirroring one another with identical stances and expressions of caught-red-handed adolescence. And there’s an even better little moment where Jess and Emma are fighting and Jess wrings out this self-justifying unapology, one of those “I’m sorry that you are so awful” reverse-apologies. She instantly catches herself: She realizes that she now not only needs to apologize for real but also make up for the tacky thing she just said, but then she has the second realization that the conversation has moved on and there’s no way for her to really take her words back. Her hands clutch at the air in frustration and her mouth quirks, she’s almost laughing at herself but also just so over herself and her inability to just do the right thing the right way—and if you can’t empathize with her in that moment, you may not be an adult yet.
This moment captures one of the key questions of the play: How do we admit what we did wrong, when we still understand why we did it? How can you hold in one hand both “It was a different time, we didn’t know the whole truth, the Russians were fighting Fascism” (there are some very smart choices about when people say “the Russians” and when people say “Stalin,” in sentences where either could be used), and “This was well after 1937, you might not know everything but you should know enough, spying for Stalin is still wrong”? Emma’s family never learned how to do that. I don’t know if it’s necessarily true that the people who have admitted their own terrible political errors and misdeeds go on to make better, gentler political choices later. I’d like to think that that’s mostly true: that honesty and humility create better policy. But Emma’s family has chosen instead to make an idol of their politics, and to defend their self-images by justifying their grandfather’s lies.
There are lots of problems with the play. There’s a certain unavoidable moral grossness in the decision to use Mumia Abu-Jamal, a real person, as a foil for this fictional family. “He” works well as a foil, but the person basically does not matter at all to the play; his actual story is not important here, just what Emma Joseph thinks about his story and how it relates to the real, important people in the world, i.e., her white, Jewish family. There are various cliched choices: I ended up thinking that the decision to make Emma’s sister an addict worked really, really well, but there’s a later tiny twist concerning her that is predictable, unnecessary, and much too cute. Emma’s grandmother Vera, a hard-liner, gets a few pointed lines but slowly emerges as basically the play’s villainess.
You have to suspend your disbelief that Emma Joseph, an educated girl who probably reads The Nation and stuff like that, would be genuinely shocked to learn that an avowed Communist Party member might’ve passed information to the Soviets. I found her naiveté on this score flatly unbelievable at first (despite/because I grew up in a very left-wing family), but I managed to explain it to myself by speculating that her family seemed to have taught her that you could have it all: that there was no conflict between American patriotism and international workers’ solidarity through Communism. Perhaps this was how they justified their own bourgeois, wealthy lifestyle? Instead of acknowledging their own complicity in the class system, coming to some kind of terms with their own divided loyalties and selfish choices, they indoctrinated Emma to believe that there was simply no conflict at all. I’m not sure all of that is in the play, but it helped me to sympathize with her.
And look, I have to talk about the ending, because it whiffs in a way that I found really unsatisfying. Skip this bit if you are planning to see the play (and if you’re in DC and you read The American Conservative, you should see it!).
Emma has been wrestling with the question of whether she should rename her fund, taking her grandfather’s name off of it. She eventually decides not to, and writes this speech, which we hear parts of, in which she condemns her grandfather’s espionage as “dishonorable” but also praises his ideals of racial equality and justice. This speech is treated as a final reckoning, a true exploration of the depths of Joe Joseph’s legacy, the good and the bad. It isn’t. Because Emma never grapples with the ideology which connected Joseph’s actions and his ideals. She never acknowledges that both the belief in racial equality and the secret service to Stalin flowed from one fact about her grandfather: He was a believing Communist. This separation of dirty actions and clean ideals may be intentional (it mirrors the “the Russians” vs. “Stalin” rhetorical divide), but it also excuses Herzog herself from writing the kind of hard scenes in which a central character is fundamentally shaken, all the way down.
Emma Joseph manages to learn that one man can have both good and bad sides—and that’s a step forward for her!—but she never learns that one political belief or allegiance can lead to both good and evil. At the end of the play she knows what it feels like to be confused, to be unsure of the righteousness of her cause, to be sorry that she let her own ego become bound up in her political work. But she still doesn’t know what wrongdoing feels like—how often it feels just like doing the right thing. She still doesn’t know how easy it is for fighting for justice to become cruelty, how easily the best impulses in a man become the justifications for his worst crimes. For a play about radicals, “After the Revolution” gives its characters moral progress which is surprisingly moderate.