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Can joy of the arts bring us together? A Boston project tests the idea.


BOSTON — On a chilly night in the Roxbury neighborhood, dozens of people — White, Black, Asian American, straight, gay, nonbinary, you name it — gathered for an invitation-only event that was equal parts about making art and making friends. Seated on the stage were Yo-Yo Ma, the celebrated cellist, and Liza Donnelly, the New Yorker cartoonist, who had been paired for the evening by the moderator, Guy Ben-Aharon, to explore how their creative lives might converge.

As Ma played and Donnelly sketched him on a tablet projected onto a large screen, the audience was treated to a rare intersection — and another installment of The Jar, a pioneering nonprofit that aspires to knit a disparate citizenry together. Founded four years ago by Ben-Aharon, a 33-year-old stage director who previously ran his own Boston-based theater company, Israeli Stage, The Jar has developed a gentler model of social engineering. Its goal is forging comradeship via conversations about artistic experiences among groups that otherwise find few opportunities to commingle.

“There’s something so invigorating about making friends as an adult,” said Rokeya Chowdhury, a Boston restaurateur and Jar proponent. “To be intent about creating a space where you all feel stronger together — I feel that is really meaningful.”

Bolstered by a $750,000, three-year grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, The Jar is in the vanguard of a movement seeking to capitalize on the communal powers of the visual and performing arts — what’s often referred to as “community engagement.” But the concept has more complex implications than that clinical terminology connotes. In a society that feels ever more tribal — even in cities that may have progressive cultures but checkered racial histories — inviting someone demographically unlike you to share a drink and an opinion is sometimes akin to a radical act.

“If you want to see a diverse and vibrant cultural community come to fruition, you have to build it,” Ben-Aharon said over breakfast. “With The Jar, you’re actively invited to build the world you want to live in.”

Invitation is the password unlocking the group’s mission. Here’s how The Jar works: Several people of divergent backgrounds agree to be “conveners” for a Jar program or “happening,” centered on a preselected reading, poem, playlet, painting or other work. Each convener agrees to bring five others to the event, at $10 a head, with the goal of an audience capped at 96. One invitee in each “jar” of six people is an intimate of the convener; two are “usuals” — friends or colleagues. But two others must be “unusuals,” people the convener barely or only incidentally knows. Or as Ben-Aharon put it, “people who you wouldn’t normally experience culture with — two people who may not look like you, love like you, pray like you.”

“The profoundness of it is that it invites people to do it themselves,” he added about the process, which on some evenings focuses on a solo performer or even an object, and other times pairs wildly different artists, such as Ma and Donnelly. The group looks for spaces in various spots around Boston and its suburbs — sometimes even in private homes — for the 40 happenings and salons it sponsors over a season.

“It invites them in, in a way that they don’t really know what effect it will have on them,” Ben-Aharon said. “Let’s say you go to church, and you’re a White gay man, and you go to this church with your husband, and your normal circle is White gay men — why wouldn’t that be? That’s just the way society dictates we live.

“But suddenly you’re invited to The Jar and you have to think of who are the two ‘unusuals,’ and you invite a Black lesbian couple from that church. And suddenly you create a friendship with them. Suddenly you create a bond — and this actually happened, by the way.”

If it all sounds a little “Kumbaya,” well, you have only to sit in on a session of The Jar to feel the welcoming vibe — the purposeful acting on a conviction that we’re all too unconnected. Unlike, say, a religious community, where faith provides the link, Ben-Aharon and The Jar count on the creative soul as its spiritual source.

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“He represents a generation of young people who want a more porous social fabric,” said Rob Orchard, formerly founding managing director of American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Mass., who taught Ben-Aharon at Emerson College and now attends Jar happenings. “It’s unusual, using the arts as the catalyst for understanding differences. You hear people who experience the same piece as you, and you get to appreciate how their response to it is totally different from yours.”

Ben-Aharon and his handful of staffers have had no trouble finding like-minded Bostonians; the catch is that the gatherings are small by design, and cracking the next challenge — how to grow the project, expand it perhaps to other cities — remains elusive. So does attracting additional capital.

“What we’re trying to do is scale intimacy,” said Jeff Kubiatowicz, The Jar’s chief of staff. “On one hand, we need to use technology in order to make that happen. On the other hand, we have to keep it really, really personal. And we’re trying to balance those two things as we grow it.”

The Jar’s participants seem to share a passionate belief in the outstretched hand. “The Jar’s model is very radical, very subversive,” said Samantha Tan, an executive leadership consultant who chairs the board. “First of all is joy, right? Come here and enjoy yourself — enjoy meeting people who are not like you. Enjoy yourself!”

Which was the feeling that suffused the room a few months ago in Roxbury, long a Black neighborhood that has, like so many enclaves in gentrifying cities, undergone changes in its class and ethnic makeup. The renovated brick-walled space was donated for the happening by Chowdhury, who was also one of the conveners for the Ma and Donnelly mash-up.

“We all have inner lives, but sometimes we can’t locate them, because we’re too busy,” Ma said, as he played a selection of classical pieces, each prompted by Ben-Aharon’s questions about the emotional states art communicates. Seated next to him, Donnelly attempted in bold and softer strokes and colors to depict Ma and the audience.

“Do you play anger — are there times?” Donnelly asked at one point. Ma responded with a fake roar, which got a laugh. And then he added, “Part of being a musician is you can put yourself in whatever frame of mind you need to be in.”

You could sense the audience’s pleasure, not only in meeting these artists up close, but also in having been asked, individually, to be there. “I like the people that I meet; it’s good to have places like this,” said Cornell Coley, who came to the happening from Mattapan, another Boston neighborhood. “They created something that brings you out.”

For artists, too, the invitation to be part of The Jar can elicit joy. Donnelly, who draws for the New Yorker and has also worked for CBS and had cartoons in publications such as Vanity Fair, said in an interview that she hadn’t been sure what to expect. What struck her was that she was able to make a connection herself. “Cartooning is communication, dialogue with other people. It’s not like me trying to show how clever I am.

“I really loved the intimacy of the room, and I could feel the diversity. I could feel the inclusive nature of it,” she added. “I felt the warmth.”



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