Working under [her] brought me immense joy…I’ve never seen someone infuse social justice concepts, identity affirmation, and artistry into a rehearsal process where the play wasn’t written to create those spaces for these conversations.
The Diary of Anne Frank
The Diary of Anne Frank is a stage adaptation by Wendy Kesselman, Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett of The Diary of a Young Girl, the English translation of the Dutch language diary of Annelies “Anne” Marie Frank. Anne Frank, her family, and four other Jewish persons were forced into hiding during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands during WWII to escape the Holocaust. Despite evading detection for twenty-five months in cramped quarters, the eight members of the “Secret Annex” were discovered and sent to labor and death camps. Only Anne’s father Otto Frank survived.
Rachel directed The Diary of Anne Frank at The Rose Theater of Omaha in February 2020. She worked intimately with the theatre’s artistic, access, education, and marketing staff to craft a holistic education and engagement experience for school groups and families. Rachel guided a close collaboration with The Institute for Holocaust Education and staff from The Jewish Federation of Omaha, who were involved throughout pre-production and rehearsals.
Some thoughts I shared with Rose Theater leadership about the import of this project to me and my greater vision for the production (slightly editing for this format):
Working on The Diary of Anne Frank is a tremendous honor, one that I do not take lightly. It terrifies and delights me, saddens me to my core and strengthens my convictions. You’ve entrusted me a special story that’s carried deep personal meaning to so many for 65+years. You’ve entrusted me with a specific story of human devastation, destruction, cruelty, death, survival, and, thank goodness, hope. You’ve entrusted me with a uniquely Jewish story about anti-semitism and persecution of the Jewish people under Hitler and the Nazis. You’ve entrusted me to engage audiences in learning and dialogue around the rise of systems of racism and oppression in Nazi Germany (Hitler’s campaign to “purify” Germany and the whole of Europe); yes, ableism, ethnicism, heterosexism, etc. were a part of Hitler’s campaign but it was pointedly targeted at Jewish people, mostly Ashkenazi Jews living in Europe at that time. You’ve entrusted me to tell the story of Anne Frank, to predominantly youth audiences, in Omaha, NE in 2020.
And so, this is the story we will be telling.
We will be telling the story of Anne Frank, a Jewish teen, forced into hiding for near 26-months with seven other Jewish people because their identity was made illegal in their home country and adopted country. It is a story of anti-semitism and the Holocaust. That’s what will be on stage, even more than the original script allowed (with almost never a mention of Jewishness) and possibly even more than our script does (adding more and informed Jewish culture to our production).
The story of Anne Frank occurred an ocean away and 75-years ago. Why do tell this story now?
- instruct in the conditions that led to the Holocaust (which in/of itself specifically teaches antisemitism)
- promote cross-cultural empathy and understanding between all social groups
- combat bystanderism by supporting upstanderism and activism
In the United States today I see a rise in overt anti-Semitism along with a rise in overt racism, sexism, genderism, homophobia, xenophobia, etc. As a Jewish person, a theatre artist, an activist, a history lover, and a one-time aspiring political scientist: it would be irresponsible to direct this play without contextualizing the production in contemporary U.S. events for our specific general audience. At The Rose Theater that audience is predominantly a youth or adolescent audience, from a range of racial and ethic backgrounds.
How can we teach that audience the specific story of Anne Frank and activate them as a result to apply that knowledge in their daily actions? That’s my job with The Rose. How can we use this story of a young girl, the audience’s age, who was living in the most terrible extreme circumstances her people have experienced, and yet managed to quite literally discover the power of her voice? Studies and research show that to relate, to connect, we must see ourselves—see ourselves in stories about other people, places, and times. This is why, of course, it is of import to me to tell Anne Frank’s story with a cast of many different looking people, to have the costuming be vivid colors and not sepia toned, to have the set up close to the audience, to have entrances and exits from the audience, to have contemporary youth characters bookend the play. It’s all an invitation into the investigation and self-reflection of how a specific story about a Jewish girl experiencing antisemitism in Holland in the 1940s can be about each of us in Omaha in 2020.
Lastly, the one point I want to reflect on with you is on the requests that have come in to cast Jewish people in lead roles only after our auditions concluded. Auditions in which we sought to be maximally inclusive of all race, gender, and abilities. I both understand and am unclear what’s driving this request. How would we know who is Jewish? We do not ask in any job interview, including auditions, what people’s religion is. We’ve auditioned many people beyond the large general audition in which there were some folk who openly identified as Jewish during a game; however, I couldn’t see everyone in the room. I don’t actually know who identified as Jewish or not, just as I don’t know who identified as Catholic, Islamic, Queer, Native American, or who identified as being bullied or being someone who bullied, who identified as having anxiety, and so on. (There were 2 young actors who were openly wearing Star of David pendants. I assume they were Jewish. I didn’t ask. These young actors appeared to be Ashkenazi Jews. If I saw them on the street, I would have said they were racially white, instead of black or brown.)
We know the Franks, the Van Pels, and Fritz Pfeffer were all Ashkenazi Jews. Were they to be alive in the United States today, they would appear to most of us as white despite being Jewish. I have friends who are Latinx, black, and from the Middle East, and are all Jewish. What makes someone Jewish? That they appear to be more like European Jews during WWII? Or that they are actually Jewish? How many Jewish persons would need to be in the play? Is there question about my identity? What about the scenic, lighting, costume, sound, marketing, education, and audience engagement staff? They are predominantly, if not exclusively non-Jewish. Something we know. I’m curious what about optics has driven this line of question and how we can turn that investigation back into the themes of the show and the play’s larger conversation?
It is my intention that with this production we are celebrating Jewish people’s roles in social justice movements. Through our partnership with the IHE and relationships within the Jewish community I want to guarantee that Judaism, Jewish life in Europe, the Holocaust, the Hebrew in the script, and Jewish life in the U.S. today is infused into the rehearsal process and play. I know you and I both are so excited to be involving the Jewish community of Omaha in conversations around this play: conversations around survivors, Holocaust history, and anti-Semitism then and now. We are excited to be coordinating a Jewish Heritage Day on opening weekend. We’re excited to be figuring out how to celebrate the legacy of this enduring work of literature together. And discover how it is applicable year after year, generation after generation, as we all move forward in our united fights for liberation.
PRESS & PHOTOS
[I]t would be wonderful if every young person in Omaha, even Nebraska, could see the current show at the Rose Theater. Make that every person, period….[W]ith some innovations, guest director Rachel Grossman has made [the script] even more meaningful to everyone….The entire production held an audience of kids who appeared to be in middle school spellbound for an hour and a half.
THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK RAN FEBRUARY 28 – MARCH 15, 2020 AT ROSE THEATER (OMAHA, NE)
Show Description: “’In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart.’ ~Anne Frank. Anne Frank was a real girl who was concealed in an Amsterdam storage attic with seven other people to evade the Nazis. Each day she would reflect on her harrowing ordeal in her journal. What emerged was a living, poetic, and often gently humorous portrait of childhood in the throes of a crisis. Witness her story live onstage.”
Production Photo Credit: Alex Myhre