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Signaling Through the Flames


By Michael D. Reisman


A few nights ago, fortified by happy hour margaritas, I frog-marched my wife through the bitterly cold streets of Brooklyn to watch a three-hour Holocaust play. I know what’s going through your head right now: is that what you call a date and are you crazy? Yes, yes, and I haven’t stopped thinking about the show and the power of art to make sense of this insane world.

 

Tadeusz Slobodzianek’s Our Class is inspired by the 1941 Jedwabne massacre, in which Poles locked hundreds of Jews in a barn and burned them to death. It’s not for the squeamish; and it’s not really a Holocaust play. It tells the story of ten classmates – five Jewish and five Catholic – through 13 “lessons” spanning eight decades. Written by a Pole, directed at the Brooklyn Academy of Music by Ukrainian-born Igor Golyak, and featuring a stellar cast from the US, Poland, Ukraine, and Russia, it’s incredibly relevant to 2024.

 

“What could I do?” is the refrain spoken by various characters throughout the play. Some Poles participate in the killing of Jews – their friends and neighbors – while other Poles save Jews. Some scenes, including not one but two rapes, are painful to watch but necessary to understand and emotionally grapple with the reality of what happened.

 

Golyak’s brilliant staging, which includes live video interviews projected on a giant blackboard on which actors write dates and names, evokes a cosmic accounting ledger of merciful and evil acts and omissions. But the point is not to separate good guys from bad guys, dubbing the former “Righteous Gentiles” and chucking the latter into the fiery pit of hell. The history told in the play is more than one fucking thing after another: it teaches that each of us has the potential to do both good and bad. And each of us has agency – we can do or not do things – and from agency arises our individual responsibility and accountability.

 

Think of holding a balloon when you were a child. Doesn’t it make you feel happy? There are lots of balloons in Our Class, on which actors draw faces and then release to the ceiling. Happy, happy, happy, right? The balloons watch over the audience during and after the massacre. How does that make you feel? Not so happy, perhaps. One of the characters, whom everyone knows is about to die, sings a beautiful lullaby to her baby. Now, how does that make you feel?

 

Our Class was first produced in 2008, a few years before Poland enacted a law that criminalized speech claiming that Poland or Poles are responsible in any way for the Holocaust. Charges were brought, but eventually dropped, against Polish-born historian Jan Gross, whose book Neighbors revealed the truth about the involvement of Poles in the Jedwabne massacre and served as a key reference for the play. I wonder if it could be performed in Poland today. Remembering, forgetting, re-remembering, and re-forgetting. Just like in America.

 

When the Brooklyn production of Our Class was announced last year, it seemed topical, given Russia’s relentless efforts to obliterate Ukraine and its history. Then Hamas slaughtered more than one thousand Jews and Israel’s retaliation killed thousands of Palestinians. Strangely, although metastasizing global conflicts and the utterly dysfunctional political situation in my country leave me feeling depressed about the future, I felt optimistic after leaving the theatre on that frigid January night. Why?

 

When I was a fledgling theater director, the dramaturg at Lincoln Center Theater told me that some people got into theater after their parents took them to see a Broadway musical when they were kids. Others caught the bug after reading the French theater visionary (and lunatic) Antonin Artaud in college. I definitely fall into the second category.


Artaud wrote: “And if there is still one hellish, truly accursed thing in our time, it is our artistic dallying with forms, instead of being like victims burnt at the stake, signaling through the flames.” Our Class certainly doesn’t dally with forms; in fact it embodies a whole new form of theater that escorts the audience to the red-hot core of the inferno. And in that, there is hope. The play runs through February 4; perhaps it will have further life on stage or online.

 

Keep an eye out for the work of Golyak (https://www.igorgolyakstudio.com/), who has been a key player in the virtual theater movement and has led the #Artists4Ukraine initiative to raise funds for humanitarian aid.

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