How Theatre Is Staring Antisemitism Straight in the Face | Playbill

Special Features How Theatre Is Staring Antisemitism Straight in the Face

Works like Leopoldstadt, This Beautiful Future, and Fiddler on the Roof are exploring antisemitism and Nazism, and providing tools for tough conversations.

Joshua Satine in Leopoldstadt Joan Marcus

David Krumholtz grew up Jewish, but he has seldom played Jewish characters—until Broadway’s Leopoldstadt, currently playing a hit run at the Longacre Theatre. The actor describes this as a “full circle” moment after spending much of his career shying away from Jewish roles (amongst the screen star’s notable roles are Bernard the Elf in the decidedly non-Jewish The Santa Clause, a role he’s currently reprising in the Disney+ sequel series The Santa Clauses).

“For many years, it was easier to sort of deny or erase the more uncomfortable aspects of my lineage,” he admits. “I felt that doing this play was a chance to reconnect with that and come to terms with it, that it would function as a sort of mirror to all that I had avoided for many years about my Jewishness.”

As it turns out, this metaphorical mirror seems to be especially popular right now—and that’s not a reference to the West End transfer’s impressive grosses (initially scheduled to close in March, the production recently added performances through July). Leopoldstadt, by playwright Tom Stoppard, is just one amongst a surprisingly large number shows to explore antisemitism on New York stages in recent months. The list also includes Off-Broadway’s Prayer for the French Republic, This Beautiful Future, Camp Siegfried, and Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish. With rumblings that the West End’s Olivier-winning revival of Cabaret may soon cross the pond, it’s a trend that might even stick around.

Brandon Uranowitz and David Krumholtz in Leopoldstadt Joan Marcus

No one who’s cracked a newspaper in the last six years—to say nothing of the bulk of recorded history—is confused on why antisemitism is a current topic of fascination: hateful, anti-Jewish sentiments are horrifyingly rampant and on the rise again worldwide. Between the Trump campaign and presidency, the deranged ramblings of Kanye West, and so-called “comedic” monologues from Dave Chappelle on Saturday Night Live, it feels like we’re experiencing a new wave of this particular form of prejudice.

So it’s not surprising that theatre, and specifically New York theatre, is there to respond. But is it useful? Though Jewish people are a tiny segment of the world population, the same cannot be said of New York City, nor of many a Broadway audience. Are these plays, written by Jewish writers and playing to a mostly progressive audience, preaching to the choir?

According to Krumholtz, that’s part of the point, at least when it comes to Leopoldstadt: “For people who can relate [to the play] as closely as Jewish people can, the play is a reminder, a catharsis. It is hopefully a symbol of strength.”

Written by Tom Stoppard, the work tracks a German Jewish family living in Vienna over five decades. Beginning in 1899, we meet a large, wealthy family living in a stately manor and enjoying an interfaith holiday. Spoiler alert: By the play’s end, various family members have fled to other countries, while others have been lost to the Holocaust and other horrors.

The events and themes of the play are painfully familiar to Krumholtz. His mother’s family fled the Hungarian Revolution in 1956 after losing many family members to the Holocaust. His father’s side came to America before World War II in the early 1900s, but the atrocities of the Holocaust still lingered for the family and much of the community. “I’ve grown up with this harrowing specter of the past that I couldn’t touch and feel, but I could see it in the eyes of my closest relatives. And it matters. And it changed me. It shaped who I am,” he says.

Krumholtz’s experience is not unfamiliar to many Jewish people, nor was his youthful urge to turn away from the more upsetting parts of his ancestors’ lives. The importance of dealing with and paying tribute to the lived experiences of one’s family members no doubt only becomes more vital as direct connections to the World War II era grow more distant with the passage of time. That instinct personally connects Krumholtz with Leopoldstadt. The play is also autobiographical for Stoppard, who did not discover his own Judaism until later in his life—Leopoldstadt depicts a character who has had his heritage, his Jewishness, all but erased in a deceptively cruel (if understandable) measure of parental protection after fleeing Nazis.

And Leopoldstadt is hardly the only new play exploring themes of Jewish identity and how to preserve that identity in the face of persecution. Prayers for the French Republic, which came to New York via Manhattan Theatre Club earlier this season, is a continuation of Bad Jews playwright Joshua Harmon’s exploration of being young and Jewish in the 21st century. It follows a French-Jewish family in modern-day Paris, debating if they should move to Israel after the son is attacked in a violent hate crime. Similar to Leopoldstadt, it also spans a time period of over 50 years and features multiple generations of the same family.

Bess Wohl’s Camp Siegfried, which made its New York debut Off Broadway following a London world premiere, centered on a pair of young American-born Nazis, exploring how one falls under the spell of such violent and hateful ideology. Similarly, Rita KalnejaisThis Beautiful Future also focused on young people with disturbing worldviews and, if not necessarily exploring where those worldviews come from, invited audiences to deepen their understanding of those who hold them. The work, which played two Off-Broadway runs earlier this year, depicts what should be a charming, romantic, innocent evening shared between two teenagers in World War II-era France. But there’s a twist: The boy is a Nazi soldier. Rather than merely demonizing the character, Kalnejais attempts to paint a fuller portrait that allows audiences to see the humanity underneath the evil beliefs he’s been swept up into.

Oliver Roth, who produced This Beautiful Future's encore run this past summer at Off-Broadway’s Cherry Lane Theatre for OHenry Productions, was compelled to get the show in front of more audiences after seeing the earlier run at Theaterlab. Roth, who is Jewish, was surprised at the reaction he had to the Nazi character’s tragic and violent end, a reaction that necessitated some serious self-reflection. “I had to reckon with why I, someone who could easily take the position that it’s good he’s dead—why don’t I feel that way?” he remarks rhetorically. “What does that say about me? Do I like what that says about me? Is that even right?” Roth says those “exciting” questions are what convinced him to produce the show.

Uly Schlesinger and Francesca Carpanini in This Beautiful Future Emilio Madrid

Needless to say, humanizing a Nazi is a tricky and incendiary proposition, particularly in a social media landscape that has largely dispensed with nuance. Nazis, the work’s critics argue, are not worthy of nuance; hate is hate, and genocide is genocide. Roth doesn’t disagree but he says nothing changes when the conversation stops there.

Roth points to a value central to Judaism: “eliu v’eilu,” a Hebrew phrase that roughly translates to “this, and also this.” Explains Roth, it’s “the idea is that the Jewish faith asks us to be able to hold two things that might seem mutually exclusive as both true. We can write off antisemitism and disavow it, and also hold some space for the humanity of the antisemite. I can hold space to feel the beauty of watching this character’s first love while also holding space for the hatred of this man for killing a bunch of innocent people.”

And putting that idea into practice has purpose. It might seem simple to write off someone with hateful beliefs—but it doesn’t make them, or their beliefs, go away. Roth cited comments from Rabbi Deborah Goldberg of New York’s Congregation Rodeph Sholom and Rabbi Zachary Plesent of Connecticut’s Temple Israel, religious leaders that he consulted with prior to producing This Beautiful Future. He also invited them to lead a post-show talkback during the Cherry Lane run, a way of guiding those tricky post-show conversations Roth was so eager to inspire. According to Roth, Goldberg and Plesent affirmed the play’s goals, sharing that the only way we can change hateful minds is not by ostracizing them—it’s to appeal to their underlying humanity.

It’s hardly a surprise that Jewish voices are leading the charge of bringing these stories into the fore. Anyone who has attended a Passover seder knows that Jewish people do not shy away from talking about their trauma and the traumas of their ancestors. Krumholtz calls it the “lexicon of having been oppressed,” and says that is why Leopoldstadt needs to be seen and why antisemitism needs to be talked about.

“The great lesson learned by Jewish people from the Holocaust is that this can happen to anyone,” he says. “The reason we keep telling these stories is to warn other minorities. It’s important for the Jewish community to carry that flag because we’ve suffered so much. We believe in never forgetting. We talk about it because sweeping it under the rug doesn’t solve anything.”

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