First Preview, First Responses to OUR CLASS

It’s one of the biggest design teams we’ve ever assembled for a drama (well, that goes for the category of musical too — whichever way you look at it, OUR CLASS employs more members of a creative team than any production in Theater J history). We’ve got a sound/composition/and musicology contingent of three brilliant artists; a team of two hugely dedicated fight and movement choreographers; a distinguished lighting team (why stop at one when you can have a partnership?); and brilliant contributions from sets, costumes, properties; more stage management than you can stuff in a phone booth (then again, phone booth? Do we have any left in DC?) – but you get the point. This searing drama is actually a great big theatrical enterprise and talented designers have been pouring their talent into this production and our extraordinary ensemble has been drinking up the input and giving back to us a breakthrough production that’s offering stand-out performances from each member of the ten person cast.

Last night we went public with the show; our first preview. Three hours and five minutes later, the audience leapt to their feet and each member of the ensemble took an individual bow to thunderous applause. The company bow at the end, hands clasped high together, bespoke a gratefulness and a relief that all the intense dedication may indeed be paying off in a production that’s going to be unforgettable.

Despite the epic dimensions and estimable length of the show, an audience of about 75 stayed for a 20+ minute discussion at the end. Audience members spoke of appreciating the play’s complexity; the nuanced, highly individualized characterizations. “How was it,” I wound up asking, “that you could come to care about figures in the play responsible for such brutal acts?”

“Because it was revealed in progression,” one astute member of the audience responded. “We got to know them year by year; got to see how small conflicts and set-backs swelled into large resentments. And then later, after the violence, those same characters had to live with their mis-deeds; they were haunted by what they did; and what they denied.”

Okay I’m flowering that up a bit, at the end. But the responses were extraordinary. Even the critical ones. “Relentless.” “The play kind of bowled me over.” “I was overwhelmed.” One woman came up to me after the talk-back and said she was too afraid to speak during the discussion, but that she thought the play was too long. She too felt run over. Our security guard reported that one man left at intermission saying the play “was too violent.” So I’m doing due diligence. Still, the number of people who were riveted, powerfully engaged, and moved was what dominated the feedback session.

All in all, there’s a discussion underway. There’s a play to be reckoned with. We welcome your feedback. Here, or in the postings to come. Next posting, we’ll share the extraordinary line-up of speakers we’ll be offering — FREE — both before and after many of the performances.


14 thoughts on “First Preview, First Responses to OUR CLASS

  1. It is horrible to think that classmates, considered friends, could turn on one another and commit such atrocious acts as in “Our Class,” but the play showed the depth of the situation, confusion and internal conflict of characters that creates a hostile environment for this to take place in. Although I wish I could say for certain I would never have taken part in actions like those portrayed in the performance, the characters in “Our Class” made me think about the fact that they did not make a simple conscious choice, but rather were tangled in a series of emotions and were victims of their environment. None of the characters were true heroes or true villains, rather just people.

    I found a fascinating part of the play to be following the development of each character, Jews and Poles. Another element of the performance that struck me was the use and portrayal of ghosts. After each character died, they removed their shoes—an abstract way to represent death. I couldn’t help but connect this, however, to the room in the Holocaust Museum with all of the shoes showing people are reduced to nothing but a material item.

    Lastly, although at times I wished for more props, I appreciated the amount of imagination that had to be used throughout the play, once again engaging the audience in the performance as other plays we have recently seen have done. Also noteworthy was the great transition from child to elderly using the same actors, making for another engaging element, as the audience had to envision what these characters looked like at different moments throughout the story.

  2. Our Class was an absorbing, insightful, and powerful show that examined the change of relationships among ten people, who were previously classmates and friends, as the political environment changed in Poland. The show explored topics including political power, humanity, revenge, human tragedy and friendship. As the political power in Poland shifted, people’s privilege and power, which were given implicitly by the government, shifted. This change of power greatly affected the lives of ten people, leading some people to unexpected death, some people to the deepest regret and guilt, some people to meaningless lives of sorrow and despair.

    I really enjoyed this play. The characters in this play were detailedly portrayed in ways that audiences can sympathize with every one of them. No one was perfect, and the audiences could see both the strong and weak sides of these characters. For example, Zocha was brave enough to agree to hide Menachem, but walked away from Dora when she desperately needed help on the square. However, audiences could not judge the decisions made by these characters, because they simply responded to their instincts under those intense situations, and no one knows how s/he would respond on spot. This reminds me of my favorite quote from Good Omens by Neil Gaiman, “It may help to understand human affairs to be clear that most of the great triumphs and tragedies of history are caused, not by people being fundamentally good or fundamentally bad, but by people being fundamentally people.”

    The show gave a balanced focus on all the ten characters in the story, showing the personalities of ten different people, their different views of life, their different choices under certain situations, and, as a result, their different life pathways. It was hard for me to see that people who were once friends laughing together became enemies that beat each other and were afraid of each other, and how the war and unexpected tragedies made the lives of these people aimless and meaningless after a certain point. All of the endings of the characters were heartbreaking, yet thought provoking. Overall, Our Class was a great show!

  3. In comparing the play “Our Class” to the previous plays about war that we have seen, the common element that strikes me the most is the idea that the past actions committed during a war continue to haunt you even after the experience is over. In “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo”, each character is haunted by someone from their past. They are constantly followed by and argue with other characters, with each interaction forcing them to address their own actions and even larger spiritual questions concerning humanity.

    In “Our Class”, many of the characters are haunted by their past actions, and like in “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo”, by someone whose death they are responsible for. One of the most interesting scenes for me was at Rachelka and Wladek’s wedding when Dora and Jakub Katz appear to the other characters. I also found that having each character be on stage after their death, just sitting there, and sometimes interacting with other characters, added to this element of being haunted by past actions.

    Another similarity between “Our Class” and “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo” is how war plays a role in both productions. Although war is a necessary part in all three plots, its impact causes larger themes to be addressed. For “Bengal Tiger” the various acts committed by each character cause them to reflect on spiritual questions. In “Our Class” the actions caused by the war forces one to think about the blurred lines between taking part in a crime, being a victim, or not doing anything at all. This play succeeds in forcing the audience to consider who the perpetrator really is and who the really victim is.

  4. After a short hiatus from the theater going experience, I was filled with excitement and anticipation for what the play, Our Class, would bring. After viewing the play it’s important to state that this was not an easy production to digest. This was a very powerful play! The play begins on a seemingly happy note as we watched what appear to be young children displaying childhood class unity through song and dance. Then, the play gradually explored hatred, prejudice and anti-Semitism infiltrating innocent lives of those living in Poland. The audience watched as the country of Poland was completely turned upside down due to the invasion by the Soviets and the Nazis. We watched as classmates who were once all playing and laughing together turn into foes willing to betray and hurt one another for personal survival.

    One of the most impactful scenes in the play for me was a brief scene between Dora and Rysiek right before the massacre at the barn. Dora noticed Rysiek while she was preparing to go to the “ghetto”, as so she was told. When she acknowledged her old classmate, one who particularly admired her in the past might I add, he not only ignored her greeting but he gave her a strong blow to the stomach! This was very impactful because it illustrated the level of hate and anti-Semitism that had evolved. Even though this was a former classmate, Rysiek explained that his actions were due to the fact that he simply could not be seen talking to a Jew not matter who it was! This was a very interesting and thought provoking scene.
    One particular aspect of the play that puzzled me was the role of the Germans. There were no Germans in the actual cast and the presence of the Germans was only alluded to throughout the play. Yet, Germans were believed to be very active in the invasion; it was a bit confusing for me to make this connection.

    Overall, the play was powerful and provoked much thought of the historical events that occurred. It was very interesting to watch the different paths each classmate took, in addition to the choices each classmate made under certain circumstances throughout their lives.

  5. Our Class’ is a very effective emotional experience. It showcases the humanity of its characters to create a terrifying contrast between said humanity and the dehumanization that later occurs in the play.

    One of the reasons why ‘Our Class’ is such an effective theaterical performance is that it portrays one of the greatest human tragedies in painstakingly personal terms. This challenges audiences to consider that the ones responsible for political atrocities are not simply regimes or ideologies but the ordinary people that choose to enable them. And, as seen in ‘Our Class,’ the reasons why people choose to support such destructive agendas is not so much due to political theory but rather because it presents an opportunity to act out on (or against) individual ambitions, family rivalries, and love interests.

    Another way ‘Our Class’ achieves its expression of humanity is its method of storytelling. ‘Our Class’ is a collection of personal stories, as narrated by people for all their omisions and inaccuracies. Did Rachelka’s newborn not survive or did Wladek strangle the baby due to the hardships they faced? How many Jews died in the barn- should people trust what the officials reported? History is not understood as from a textbook: one authoritative voice and narrative. Rather, history consists of multiple voices, contrasting and competing with one another- and it is the job of the historian or receiver of such historical documents to weigh evidence and judge the truth for themselves. This idea is very much the case with Abram Baker, whose idea of the truth is formulated only with what he receives in letters from Poland while he resides across the sea in America.

    ‘Our Class’ also presents the idea of how personal issues interacts with a narrative, making it unreliable or even prohibiting it from being heard. The best example is toward the end of the play where Rachelka denies Zygmunt and Heniek’s participation in the murder of Jakub Katz. Rachelka suppressed her story because she knew she had to live with Father Heniek and his parishioners for the rest of her life; she valued being at peace in the moment rather than trying to expose the terrible injustices of the past. History and its telling are greatly impacted by its human vessels.

  6. Unorthodox. Shocking. Well-staged. Somewhat frightening. Illuminating. Wonderful timing. Focused. Beautiful. This play, despite the grim subject matter and the woman fainting after the performance, was one to be remembered. What struck me most about this piece is the way it presented the subject matter, how the history of the area played a large role but was not the focus. That simple fact is what made the play that much more powerful. It was a play, a history, and a set of lives as seen through the eyes of a single 10 person class. The collaboration was a beautiful and integral part of the play, not just the evolving relationships between the characters, but the sharp way the actors worked together in the choreography and the staging involved. The play was extremely well staged in how each player was able to quickly set the stage, to dance, and to sing. And beyond that, it was impressive how the majority of the cast was able to keep the level of composure and tact while onstage for the duration of the play.
    What is an insightful and effective piece of this play is how there is a consistent breaking of the fourth wall. This act takes the audience out of the action of the play while adding some depth to the play by allowing each character time to detail their experiences and to frankly tell the audience how they feel at a particular moment. Also through this technique of breaking the fourth wall the audience is able to take each character’s perspective and motivation into account. In each character we see a different view on the war, but, relative to the play, the perspective that is amongst interesting is that of Abram. In Abram, a character that is isolated from most of the action of the play, there is a well-intended innocence that is a welcome contrast from the tragedy involved in this play. The problem I found, however, with Abram’s voice is that the innocence that is appreciated is also very much naïve and not completely aware of the events unfolding. The other characters, for the most part, came off as very much human in the sense that they were victims of their own moralities and choices.
    Beyond all of that, I really was a fan of the early scene when the characters pretended that they were all on an airplane.

  7. Our Class

    Our class is a sobering play, graphically detailing the atrocities done against Jewish Poles in the work up to and through WWII. The play took a long-term view of things by starting in the 1930s, and then over three hours later ending in early 2000s. 

    The play quickly started empathizing with each of the characters as they go through some school-house bullying because of the divide between their religions. Things get serious when the group begins physically abusing, gang raping, and violently murdering each other. The portrayal of all these abuses was gruesome and forced the viewer to contemplate the historical event and its implications today. It certainly brought to life an historical event in the starkest of settings, by following the characters coming of age in war. The effects of war on children are universal, and as applicable today as they were in Poland, giving this play relevance today. 

    Our Class was particularly effective because it managed to blur the line between good and bad. It seemed the only truly “good” character was the one who moved to America, and so avoided most of the physiological effects of the war. All other characters had highs and lows because the play adequately explained where they were coming from. I sympathized with many of the characters because of scenes from when they were younger. 

    The main drawback of the play is that it is both long and sad. There isn’t a real feel good redeeming moment at the end and it doesn’t lend itself well to starting off the weekend. Nevertheless, the play breeches an important topic about the power of war propaganda and the life-long effects it has. 

  8. The production of Our Class gave a theatrical twist on the actual horrors that occurred in Poland during World War II. I have a lot of appreciation for the civilian point of view of the production that allowed for the demonstration of the over-reaching effect that war has on civilians. The classmates had a level of intimacy created through their relationships in the classroom, and even that did not withstand the devastating effects of war. I feel that the production was very multi-dimensional in multiple aspects, which allowed for the viewer to understand that the effects of war are never simple nor do they only have effects on soldiers. The actors brought an energy to their emotions that made the production eerily real. There were so many emotions that were conveyed, which also added to the complexity of war. There is not only political factors coming into play, there is hate, love, and the ever-terrifying gang factor. The production also brought to light the question that always seems to arise in the aftermath of a war; who is really a hero? Who can we deem innocent and who is the guilty party?
    During the talks after the production the point was raised that Our Class allowed for the viewers to realize that everyone can be a part of history, which is really terrifying in and of itself. I also made the point that the presence of five different languages allows for the viewer to sense some of the same confusion that citizens in Poland were feeling during the war. The language is also a good key to the time period the production was set place. Overall, the production was very well written, directed and acted. I sincerely enjoyed Our Class and I felt it was very educational, entertaining, and eerie all at the same time.

  9. “Our Class” was creative, thought-provoking, and just plain amazing! The play revolved around the lives of 10 classmates who started school together in Poland. The lives of the characters are impacted by a political climate that separates Jews from Poles and leads to an era of anti-Semitism in Poland.

    At first I was a little thrown off by the lack of props in the play. There were times when I found it a bit frustrating such as when Dora was “carrying” her baby. It was hard to imagine that there was a child in her arms and there were times when franking I forgot she even had a child. I realized later that the play was actually very creative in using as little props as possible and instead did a great job at using lighting. The scene of the burning barn was especially great. The effects of red and orange lighting along with a little bit of artificial fog really made it feel like we were all inside that barn.

    All the characters in the play were very interesting, but it was the character of Abram that I found the most intriguing. I felt that throughout the story, it was Abrams letters with his childhood memories and good wishes that intensified the things that were happening to the other characters. Abram symbolized the loved and friendship that once existed between all classmates and that was lost over the years.

    The play does a marvelous job of recreating what was the horrific reality to many in the years preceding the Holocaust. As an audience we witness the emotional and psychological effects that war and hatred have on people. Excellent play, definitely one of my favorites!

  10. Our Class is an enlightening play with a story meant to shock and mesmerize the audience with the personal lives of ten classmates. The horror of the actions of each of the characters is unfathomable, but I was able begin to understand the humanity of each despite my inherent disgust. One unique aspect of the play that was discussed was the lack of German presence in the tragedies of the Polish town, despite the news account in the later portion of the play. That instantly made me question the accuracy of the lessons from history classes. Of all of the horrific reports of German discrimination during the Holocaust, what is to be attributed to the Germans, and what has happened because of neighbors turning against each other? Another impression with which I was left after the play was the rapid exchange of “power” between factions during such unsettling times in Poland. First we witness Jewish students taunting the Catholics, but later in their lives the Catholics commit terrible crimes (and sins, as was humorously noted) against their Jewish counterparts. This is emphasized especially when we are given information about the later parts of the classmates’ accounts. It struck me how much the effects of war seep into every facet of life. It was incredible for me to believe that a person can go down a completely unexpected path because of war. I was struck by how incredibly lucky I am to live without the pressures experienced by these characters. I am fortunate to make choices that will allow me to grow and prosper as a person, rather than make decisions that allow me to simply survive.

  11. I found the production of our class to be very educational and amusing. The mix of storytelling and song seemed very well balanced and each actor reflected their character perfectly. One part of the play that I was extremely fond of was the amount of history and educational background the director was able to provide with the audience. The additional knowledge was extremely helpful and the director never forced the dates or times into the script.
    When the play first started I was under the impression that the actors were in elementary school. As the play went on, however, I questioned what age the cast was actually supposed to be. I noticed the blackboard would change to different numerals every so often, but I wasn’t able to follow along with the timeline posted in the production handout, which caused a little confusion. I think it would have been helpful to the audience if the date or timeframe of the scene was projected on the blackboard along with the roman numerals. This would have been able to provide the audience with the relevant timeframe of the scene which would help put the situation in context.
    Despite my personal difficultly with the timeframe of each scene, I thought the play was absolutely stunning. It was most certainly a great way to bring awareness to a very emotional and disturbing historical event. I found it extremely valuable to watch a play from the lens of the victims as opposed to many of the previous plays we have seen that focused on the criminals and bloodshed of the war itself. This play seemed to focus on the lives of those involved and how it impacted the city, the culture, and the dynamic of a group of friends who were once so close, but complexly broken by war, hatred, and betrayal.

  12. Our Class, in comparison to the traditional historical approach to retelling the narrative and legacy of war (sociological, dates, stats, numbers, policies, top-down) this was more of a “people’s history” (deeply in-situ, anecdotal, personal). Unlike Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad zoo and Black Watch, Our Class placed the war within the context of life-and focused on the civilian/citizen rather than the figure/role of the soldier. This was the first war representation that included women characters of depth, and all of the characters were extremely complex and well developed.
    This play is special because it keeps at its center the reality that war is always taking place in someone’s homeland, city, neighborhood. Our class shows the oft overlooked: that war comes home and makes it’s home there—reverberating across time and place. This might encourage a reflection on the long-term time scale effects and devastation of war and group violence. But this reflection is secondary to the deeply personal introspection inevitably called forth by this show.
    A significant attribute of Our Class is the rich portrayal of the emotions, experience and impossible decision-making that becomes the life of a citizen in a war. This makes the play more understandable, and relatable to the civilian audience member, and it exhorts the audience member to grapple with such difficult moral and personal questions. There are no innocent characters, even the victims of horrific treatment and circumstance. The characters are complex and multi-faceted as one might expect from real life. Repeated through out the performance is the question “What could I have done?”. This allows the viewer to access the retelling of atrocity in a nuanced, and personal way. This is the type of relationship to history that helps make citizens capable of creating different futures. Encountering this type of historical narrative format (accompanying the more traditional historical facts, figures and characters) allows the history to come alive enough to affect one’s psyche and decision-making. This harkens back to the question of the role and function of story telling, and I would argue that this can include the shaping of souls and lives. This is an historical education. It brings the audience into the intimate battlefield of the soul.
    Specifically about the play—the players were able to do an immense amount of scene setting and visual representation, using limited props to portray a multitude of settings and situations. Two moments in the play impacted me particularly strongly. The Rabbi Abram at two different moments orates long genealogies/family relations. The first is a list of his family that was murdered in Poland-and leaves him as the only surviving member of his family. The second is his telling of all the descendants he has brought into the world. The first scene is devastating—especially because of his careful determination to attend to each lost life by name. The second is tender, heartfelt and moving (even a little funny) because of this same loving dedication to naming, acknowledging each individual-this time with pride and joy. This was a long, thoughtful performance—not for the faint of heart, but crucial for the education of that heart.

  13. “Our Class” is definitely one of my favorite plays so far. I thought the play had dynamic actors, scenes, and emotions. First, I thought the play might be little out of order because there were too many characters compared to “The Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo” and “Body Awareness”. But each character had strong characteristics, I had no trouble distinguishing between different characters. I thought everyone was a main character and “Our Class” portrayed a realistic background of what class looks like.
    The play showed lives of ten different characters and how political conflict damage relationships. In the beginning, the whole class got along well and I felt delightful watching them playing games and singing. However as the play went on, these innocent students face inevitable historical event, German and Soviets invasion of Poland. Personally, it was tragic to see Rysiek punched Dora, when she a desperately crying for help. But what else could have he done? Rysiek, himself might have been accused of being a traitor. There was no one to blame but the political conflicts itself.
    The scene after Germany surrenders was also interesting (Lesson XIII). The Jewish were freed from the concentration camp. Menachem becomes one of the lieutenant and wanted to get revenge on Jakub. At this point, I thought it was too late restore the broken relationship. There was too much pain and suffering for forgiveness.
    I loved Abram personally and thought he was an interesting character because I thought he was metaphor for United States during the WWII: a helping hand. Abram has little part in the beginning but major role towards the end of the play.
    “Our Class” showed and remembrance of holocaust, which is important for everyone to look back on. The play showed unpleasant/pleasant scenes but the dynamic made the play more remarkable and powerful.

  14. After hearing about the importance of “Our Class” and the challenges of creating such a sensitive, emotional production for weeks from Ari, I was anticipating finally being able to see the play. “Our Class” definitely exceeded my expectations in it’s emotional impact. The production was well acted and well staged. The play dealt with complex issues but did so without making my head hurt. It dealt with serious issues of violence, rape and murder but it did so in a necessary way. The violence was not simply for show or shock value, but to tell a true story.

    As someone who has studied issues like genocide and ethnic violence, and works at an internship that deals with those issues on a daily basis, one of the things that makes this type of violence so difficult to reconcile from is that there are many truths. I think the play did a good job of telling each story – characters like Rysiek, who himself was a victim of extreme violence and later turns to one of the most viscous characters in the play, did a good job of showing the multiple truths. The victims and perpetrators are blurred.

    I, too, cannot say how I would react were I put in a situation like the ones the classmates in Our Class were put in. I hope I would not be a perpetrator of violence or a bystander, but what Our Class reminded me, which I think is important to keep in mind, is that one will never know until they are put in the situation. This is why the theater, and plays like Our Class, is so important. We must keep these things in mind when we live in a world where mass violence and ethnic tension still exists

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