The decision to produce The Diary of Anne Frank was made well over a year ago. Even so, I can’t help but think as we approach tech week, that no other play could feel so timely. This week the FBI is investigating bomb threats at more than two dozen Jewish community centers. This on the heels of threats to 16 community centers the week before.
As a nation we are walking into a new presidency endorsed by white nationalists and the KKK. Throughout the campaign we saw analogies and memes comparing the Republican candidate to Adolph Hitler, particularly in response to his call to ban Muslims from the United States.
Frank Navarro, a California high school teacher and Holocaust scholar, was placed on paid leave last November after drawing comparisons between Hitler and President-elect Donald Trump in his classroom. The classroom. A place that, in a democracy, should be safe to examine and explore history and its implications on our current events. After all if we do not examine our history are we not destined to repeat it?
But the history of “othering” a group of people based on religious beliefs or nationality has long been with the human race. Ethnic cleansing goes back as far as 350 AD when China's General Ran Min ordered the extermination of the Wu Hu, especially the Jie people, during the Wei–Jie war. In our more recent memory we have witnessed the persecution of Croats and non-Serbs in Bosnia, the massacre of nearly one million Tutsis by Hutus in Rwanda, the horrors of Darfur and so on.
In the 20th century, perhaps the most widely recognized genocide is the Holocaust, perpetrated by Adolph Hitler, killing around 11 million people, 6 million of whom were Jewish. The play, The Diary of Anne Frank is based on the writings from the diary kept by Anne Frank while she was in hiding for two years with her family during the World War II Nazi occupation of the Netherlands.
How fortunate we are that Anne Frank’s story survived the war. It allows us a glimpse into the humanity of those that found themselves in an unthinkable situation. I am sure their faces are mirrored today in the faces of Syrian refugees.
The play is at its simplest a window into a family’s normal struggles of co-habitation, parenting, desires, fears and growing pains. But at its grandest it is a reminder that even in our darkest hour “we are part of a great pattern. That we are just a little minute in life.”
In our current tumultuous political climate, I’ve had difficulty finding my feet. It has been overwhelming. The ugliness and hate seem to outweigh the beautiful and loving. So perhaps the timeliness of this play for me is more personal. Perhaps I need the reminder from a fifteen year old girl some 70 years ago that “in spite of everything, I still believe people are good at heart.”
The Diary of Anne Frank has three public performances on January 27, 28 and 29. For ticket information visit www.magicaltheatre.org
But simpler was not the reality. There was nothing simple about the 60's. Our country was at the height of the civil rights movement. Just 2 years earlier Martin Luther King wrote his seminal "Letter from Birmingham Jail," arguing that individuals have the moral duty to disobey unjust laws. Just several months later he delivered his famous "I Have a Dream" speech at the Lincoln Memorial.
The next year the 24th Amendment abolished the poll tax, which had been designed to make it difficult for poor blacks to vote. And in July of that year President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibiting discrimination of all kinds based on race, color, religion, or national origin.
1965 was the march across the Pettis bridge in Selma Alabama. That "Bloody Sunday" was the catalyst for pushing through the voting rights act.
As the 60's continued we saw race riots, strengthening of anti-discrimination laws, Loving vs Virginia ending discrimination against interracial couples and in '68, the murder of Martin Luther King.
Olden times and ancient rhymes
Of love and dreams to share
2016 has been a tumultuous year with the loss of so many profound and discerning messengers of our time -Leonard Cohen, Gwen Ifill, Prince, Edward Albee, Harper Lee, David Bowie, Elie Wiesel, Morely Safer, Muhammad Ali to name but a few. Then there is the presidential election of course. As the current hit musical Hamilton observes,” the world turned upside down.”
While we may long to crawl back under that blue and white blanket of peace and love, perhaps returning to the lessons of that so called “simpler time” is just where we need to go.
Oh that we could always see
Such spirit through the year.
As an actor sitting backstage you get the unique perspective of hearing the audience’s reaction to what is happening on stage. It is difficult to fully experience the audience reaction when you are performing because there are many distractions….lines to say, props to use, and of course other actors. Backstage with the BFG has been a lot of fun.
Briefly the story of the BFG involves an orphaned girl, Sophie, who accidentally discovers a giant as he brings dreams to sleeping children in the middle of the night. The giant (BFG) takes the girl back to his cave in Giantland because he fears she will tell others about him and the grownups will put him in a zoo. The BFG, unique to other giants, eats only snozzcumbers (an icky poo vegetable). Such is not the case for his neighboring giants Childchewer, Fleshlumpeater, Bloodbottler and Bonechruncher, who, as their names suggest, eat children. Sophie and the BFG create a dream for the Queen of England so she knows what is happening and sends her military to capture the blood thirsty brutes and stop their night time child eating raids. As with all Roald Dahl stories the stakes are life and death and children are capable and at times fearless.
Magical’s production doesn’t shy away from this. The ghastly children eating giants, created by puppet master Mark Jenks, are true to their names wearing souvenirs of the children they have feasted on. The puppets are truly magnificent works of art. They are interesting, they are scary and they are awesome. Backstage you hear the audience gasp when the BFG first enters...he is big (approx. 11 ft), but sweet in a giant kinda way. When the mean giants enter, bigger still than the BFG, the gasps turn to giggling screams...like haunted house fun. After one such terrifying visit from Fleshlumpeater and Bloodbootler, Sophie and the BFG drink frobscottle, a fizzy drink that causes a tremendous amount of whizpopping. Backstage you hear the audience slowly start to understand that whizpopping is passing gas and, the laughter is contagious backstage when Sophie and the BFG let them rip. Literally!
With all the silliness and scariness there is also tremendous beauty. The BFG takes Sophie to Dreamland and teaches her to catch dreams. Watching this scene during rehearsals as they choreographed the movements with the lights you could tell it would be beautiful. But I have never seen the finished product that came about during tech week because actors are then backstage for the remaining rehearsals. But I know the effect was a success. When the lights change and the audience is taken to Dreamland you hear the oohs and ahhs as intense as the giggling screams.
I am sure our audiences are thrilled with the ride they take with our production of the BFG if what we can hear backstage is any indication. Having been on stage for over 30 years, I have been in plenty of productions I would just as soon forget. But it sure is a warm and fuzzy and satisfying feeling when you know you are part of something that brings a little magic into the lives of children and their families. We have some seats left for the remaining performances this weekend. As the Queen, I look forward to greeting you at the palace. Tickets at www.magicaltheatre.org
Deb Lemire has worked professionally in the theatre for over 35 years. She is a company member of Magical Theatre Company, a professional, resident and touring theatre in Northeast Ohio. She also keeps busy with her own production company, Queen Bee Productions.