At Ari’s invitation, I offer these reflections from a London café, as I prepare to head to Poland tomorrow for an all-too-short trip to Warsaw and Krakow, stuffed to the brim with meetings with colleagues, including with Our Class playwright Tadeusz Slobodzianek — and culminating with a journey to Auschwitz.
Our Class recounts the story of a community, modeled on the Polish village of Jedwabne, a place in which, as described in Gross’ celebrated and controversial book Neighbors:
“One day, in July 1941, half of the population of a small East European town murdered the other half – some 1,600 men, women and children.”
These two “halves” are represented in the play by 5 Catholic and 5 Jewish characters whom we follow from their childhood classroom in 1925 through each of their deaths over the course of 80 years. It’s an ensemble play very much about community, and communal guilt. While the core question it explores of how neighbors come to turn on each other and commit such atrocities is one that finds immediate contemporary resonance in so many parts of the world, such as Bosnia and Rwanda, this play is also very specifically Polish in its form and content.
I have been fortunate to spend this beautiful and productive week in Edinburgh and London. I have seen some outstanding work from around the world, much of which resonates and inspires visions of our upcoming process, (most indelibly Poland’s Song of the Goat Theater’s exquisite and spare Lear Songs). I spent time in the archive of the National Theatre gathering dramaturgical research from the National’s world premiere production of the play, and I met with a range of people with invaluable insights into the script. All this on top of the immense wealth of material I have been reading and the films I have been viewing over the past few months and my head is overflowing, and my heart vibrating, with this complex and devastating story.
I have already benefitted so deeply from intensive discussions with so many who have been deeply connected to this play, including Catherine Grosvenor, a gifted playwright whom I met in Edinburgh this week and who did the literal translation of the play for the National; Walter Bilderback, the incredible dramaturg and literary manager at the Wilma Theater in Philadelphia; and Professor Allan Kuharski of Swarthmore University, one of the foremost authorities on Polish theater; as each has emphasized to me, the subject is bottomless.
Since Ari and I first began discussing the play last Spring, my admiration and appreciation of its artistry has grown exponentially. Despite its impressive credentials – as the first play ever to receive the Nike Award, Poland’s top literary honor, as well as acclaim in productions at the National, the Wilma, and now in Warsaw, it’s a hugely demanding and bold play to choose to produce at any time, perhaps especially so at the climax of the election season, since the play neither offers easy escapism from that spectacle, nor direct topical engagement with it. Theater J remains unmatched in its courage to provoke, and in its commitment to fostering dialogue around the pressing issues of our times. I have never been as proud of my association with Theater J as now, for the faith it is placing in in its audience, in the wider community, and in its artists, to bring this daunting, brutal and beautiful play to life.
And we have assembled a true dream team — with a cast that includes Tim Getman, Laura Harris, Heather Haney, Ashley Ivey, Mark Krawczyk, Dana Levanovsky, Joshua Morgan, Sasha Olnick, Alexander Strain, and Harlan Work, along with an artistic/production team that includes Misha Kachman, Dan Wagner, Ivania Stack, Jimmy Garver, Eric Shimelonis, Emma Jaster, Joe Isenberg, Robert Duffley, Stephen Spotswood, Jennifer Mendenhall, and Jeanette Buck. Corny as it may sound, I feel I am carrying them with me somehow, and each of them flickers before me at certain moments as I sojourn deeper into the literal and figurative spaces of darkness and light this play is leading us.
Despite the weight of this material, I find myself looking forward especially eagerly to when we all come together as a team in just a couple of weeks, not only because it is by its nature so much about community, but I think also because reckoning intensively with this material for the last several months (in recent weeks more and more obsessively), has often been a lonely and harrowing experience. There is a strange almost violent juxtaposition to sitting on a Cape Cod beach with my kids, while simultaneously reading about and working on accounts of bestial cruelty inflicted by everyday citizens. But this work has felt necessary, and in its own way, has already been very deeply gratifying, and is becoming more so by the day.
My own artistic background is heavily steeped in the Holocaust. I was commissioned to develop a play about the Holocaust 20 years ago (Right as Rain) in connection with the Anne Frank in the World international exhibit, and toured with that project as a Holocaust educator for 3 years. (We did a workshop production of a new version at Georgetown in 2007). I have taught courses and published articles that engage the familiar challenges of Holocaust representation. This May I spent a few days at Conference in Miami among a small group of scholars, educators and artists who are working to create a Holocaust Theatre Archive and resource center, which offered a sobering reminder of the ever-diminishing attention to, and urgent need for, Holocaust education and artistic expression as the last of the survivors pass on. (http://www.holocausttheaterarchive.com).
Our Class, as scenic designer Misha Kachman and I have discussed extensively, is not a Holocaust play in the traditional sense. It is so specifically embedded in its relationship to a particular Polish history, culture, and political climate, which has for the most part not been a central part of the grand narrative of the Holocaust. (I began this process knowing only the broad outline of Poland’s history and am still very much catching up.) But the challenges of representation it raises around the balance between testimony and dramatization are familiar to anyone who has dealt with making art out of suffering. How does one presume to represent or depict such unspeakable atrocity while honoring the dignity of both the living and the dead.
The play is told largely in a testimonial style, recounted through direct address to the audience. We have been wrestling and will continue to throughout the process with the question of what to show and what to tell, with the aim of distilling to what is essential and trusting the power of the story itself, and of our extraordinary ensemble.
Themost direct theatrical influence on Our Class comes from Tadeusz Kantor’s iconic Polish work Dead Class, to which it pays conscious homage in both content and theatrical form. While familiar to Poles, Dead Class is unknown to most Americans. Like Our Class it is a ghost play in which the living and the dead commingle and interact, and in which the ghosts of the past surge forth and insist on becoming present. The physical world we are creating for the show is inspired, as the playwright was, by the poetics of Kantor’s classic play: a simple classroom where lessons are imparted serves as a spare, haunted, transformative space from where our extraordinary ensemble of storytellers can conjure innumerable worlds fluidly.
But the more I work on it, the more it strikes me that the play also carries decided echoes of another work far more familiar to us, Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. Our Class opens at a time of great hope , where the dream of a diverse yet united and peaceful Poland under Piłsudski seems palpable. As the play explores in detail how it went so terribly wrong, it offers us no easy solutions. While the central event of Our Class — an unspeakable massacre — may seem the very antithesis of Grover’s Corners, what I am finding so shattering and haunting is that the town depicted in Our Class is, at its origin, like any town — filled with everyday rhythms, of young people pining for each other, working and struggle in their daily domestic and agrarian lives, practicing their faith, and dreaming of a better future.
I am off to Poland in a few hours to try to continue to absorb what I can about this world. I am exceedingly grateful to have such an extraordinary community to share the journey with.