antisemitism – a new (((musical))) about old tropes: a conversation with the writer and composer, Uri Agnon

On the 28th of April antisemitism – a new (((musical))) about old tropes will have a free, public, work-in-progress performance at Southampton’s Turner Sims. This musical satire about shifting privilege, racism, and guilt, is written and composed by Southampton music PhD student, and Parkes Institute outreach fellow, Uri Agnon. The performance will mark the end of an eight-day workshop on the piece, supported by the Parkes Institute, Arts Council England, JW3 and Theatre Peckham. 35 minutes of the show will be presented followed by a Q&A which will be chaired by fellow Parkes PhD Joseph Finlay who researches the history of the discourse around ‘race relations’ in the British Jewish community and has a background in musical theatre. The event will be followed by a free drinks reception. We spoke to Uri Agnon about the work on this unique piece and what we can expect on the 28th.  

Can you give us a summary of the musical?  

Narrated by a pair of bickering storytellers, antisemitism follows a Jewish Israeli’s first 24 hours in the UK. During a string of absurd encounters with characters as varied as a young migrant woman, George Bernard Shaw, and a pair of boomer kidnappers who mistakenly believe they’ve captured the Israeli magician Uri Geller for ransom, the nameless protagonist is forced to re-evaluate what he thought he knew about antisemitism, Jewishness, and identity. This quick-paced political satire combines dry multi-layered humour with the musical influences of Bernstein, Weill, Schoenberg, and Sondheim to tackle one of the most explosive discourses in British politics. Bringing together Jewish and non-Jewish creatives and audiences, antisemitism – a new (((musical))) about old tropes bridges communities and espouses a nuanced, fierce, depiction of antisemitism from the perspective of the eternal outsider/insider: the Wandering Jew. The show forms a key part of my practice-led PhD in music composition and is also strongly influenced by my work as a Parkes Institute Outreach Fellow over the last 2 and a half years. 

What does a practice-led PhD look like? 

The concept of a practice-led PhD is based on the idea that artistic creativity can be a worthwhile avenue for academic research. Composition PhDs typically consist of a portfolio of musical pieces and a written critical account placing them in wider context and showing how they contribute to a specific study field, often by relating them to a research question. In my case I look at the relationship between activism and music and examine how activist strategies can inform music-making and vice versa. The focus of my research is pieces of music that are overtly engaged in politics. My goal is to improve my own practice of writing political music, and through academic writing to help develop tools that advance the field. These tools can be applied to music which is engaged with a wide verity of political struggles. In my own research and practice, the main struggles I interact with musically are the struggle against the Israeli occupation of Palestine, the fight against climate crisis, and much to my own surprise – combating British antisemitism.  

You said the show was influenced by your work at Parkes, in what way? 

As an Israeli from Jerusalem, I very rarely experienced antisemitism in my everyday life growing up. Generational trauma undoubtedly shaped me, but up until two and a half years ago I lived in a place where Jewishness is hegemonic, not a minority identity. Therefore, my experience of my own Jewishness changed when I moved to the UK. Grappling with the complex set of differences between being Jewish here and there is one of the main threads of the musical. My affiliation and work with the Parkes Institute from my very first weeks in the UK have been an important resource in the attempt to decipher this relationship. While the musical is based on my artistic interpretation of what I see around me, feel in my own skin, and hear from Jewish friends, it’s important to me that it is informed by the academic work done in the field. Parkes outreach events, public lectures and seminars have been a priceless resource in this endeavour. For example, the ironic title and repeating line of the first song the protagonist sings, “White But Not Quite”, is shamelessly stolen from something Professor Shirli Gilbert said in her lecture on “South African Jews, the Holocaust and Apartheid” at the 2020 Karten Memorial Lecture. The two-day event “Antisemitism On The Left” also left its mark on the show. This academically informed aspect of the work is constantly strengthened by conversations on the piece with Parkes members and the PhD community who have read the work and reacted to it from their diverse fields of expertise. The work also incorporates “found” material, real texts, both contemporary tweets, and old documents found in the Parkes Institute archives.

Why did you decide to write this as a musical? Why not an article, or a piece in a different genre? 

The discourse on antisemitism is an explosive one. It often leads to heated debates and short conversations. The question of how antisemitism is and/or isn’t related to the resistance against the occupation of Palestine leads to rifts between friends and family members. Many people are too worried to discuss antisemitism, fearing they may say the wrong thing (and many others are not worried enough). Theatre allows for multiple points of view to be expressed and while I believe my own position is clear in the show, it isn’t made of a singular, narrow, logical argument, but contains more of the emotional complexity, and at times contradiction, that this issue brings up. My hope is that through humour and music we can be able to sit longer, together, with these complexities. Not in order to solve them, I’m not sure a bottom line is possible in this millennia-long conversation, but perhaps we can still gain a new understanding. Besides, musical theatre is an extremely Jewish tradition, and so it seemed a fitting medium for this topic. 

So what should we expect on the 28th?

While the show touches on some very heavy topics, (yes, the Holocaust, of course) most of the songs, with titles such as “Good Jew Bad Jew”, “Guilty” and “White But Not Quite”, are upbeat and the overall experience should be, I hope, quite enjoyable.

Book your free ticket here for 28th April, 6pm!

Uri Agnon is a Jerusalem-born composer, activist and researcher. His work forges a close connection between the musical and theatrical and the political. His pieces have been commissioned by and/or performed at major Israeli music festivals, art galleries, demonstrations and direct actions. Works include the chamber opera Word Problems which is composed entirely of Israeli school textbooks, the oratorio Custodian, staged as a direct action on the doorsteps of the Jewish National Fund opposing their takeover of a home in East Jerusalem, many chamber pieces and music for theatre, dance, and film.  

As a PhD composition student at the University of Southampton, Uri is under the supervision of Dr. Matthew Shlomowitz and Dr. Valentina Cardo studying activist music, a topic on which he has recently published an article on Tempo titled “On Political Audiences: An Argument In Favour of Preaching to the Choir”. Uri is also writing a piece for Southampton University Symphony Orchestra to be premiered in June. 

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