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'Class' is in Session

October 6, 2011
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The set design for "Our Class," soon to premiere at the Wilma Theater

Is it possible that in the course of a single day, one half of the residents of a small Polish town -- the Christian half -- could have turned on their Jewish neighbors and killed all but a few hundred in the most horrific ways imaginable?

This is the question at the heart of a new play, Our Class, by Polish writer Tadeusz Slobodzianek, soon to have its American premiere at the Wilma Theater on the Avenue of the Arts.
 
The mass slaughter the playwright depicts on stage actually took place on July 10, 1941, in Jedwabne, in the northeast corner of predominately Catholic Poland. The name of the town, though, is never mentioned in the play.
 
Close to 1,600 people were murdered on that broiling hot July day; some were beaten, others had their throats cut. Many were simply tortured to death. As the day wore on, the Jews who could still stand were marched to a barn in the middle of a field on the outskirts of town, forced inside, and barricaded in while the building was set on fire.
 
For decades, a small monument marked the spot, but the inscription blamed the invading Nazi army for the deaths. Only in 2001, on July 10, to mark the 60th anniversary of the pogrom, was the monument replaced with a more accurate one. This stone said that the Polish citizens of Jedwabne, influenced by Nazis stationed in the town, had been responsible for the daylong killing spree.
 
As if to reignite the controversy over what happened that day, last month the monument was desecrated with anti-Semitic graffiti. A silent march protesting the vandalism followed in nearby Bialystok. And all this transpired just weeks before the Wilma was set to unveil its production of Our Class, under the direction of Blanka Zizka, the company's artistic director.
 
The play begins previews Oct. 12, with opening night set for Oct. 19.
 
Slobodzianek's drama follows 10 characters, five Christians and five Jews, all classmates, from 1925 to the present day, chronicling who survived and who perished on that gruesome day 70 years ago.
 
But staging Our Class is not all the Wilma has in store. A month of events -- lectures and discussions primarily, put together by Walter Bilderback, the Wilma's dramaturge and literary manager -- surrounds the premiere here.
 
These extra-theatrical gatherings began with a Sept. 18 program with Polish-born Princeton University professor Jan T. Gross discussing the factual horrors behind the dramatic interpretation. Gross first detailed the Jedwabne tragedy a decade ago in his book, Neighbors, which was the inspiration for the playwright.
 
(For a complete listing of the ancillary events, including one to be held at the National Museum of American Jewish History, go to wilmatheater.org or call 215-893-9456.)
 
In a recent interview, Zizka said the Wilma had planned the additional programs because the play is not only important but highly relevant. Its very specificity -- and the questions it evokes -- can be applied to other events in the world and even in our city.
 
The play, said Zizka, asks an elemental question: Who are our neighbors; and how is it that people can turn on others they've known for so long and do such horrible things?
 
"We've seen it so many times, in Yugoslavia and Rwanda," said the Czech-born director, who this week won a Barrymore Award for best direction of a play. "Just like in Jedwabne, these were communities that knew one another, did business together, went to school together."
 
Something like it happened here, at South Philadelphia High School, she said, when Asian and African-American students clashed last year. The Wilma has been working with some of these very students, she continued, helping them to process what happened, even to write a play of their own.
 
"The students' reactions are exactly like what occurs in this play: 'What are the facts? Who started it? Who are the greater victims.' " Some of these students will be seeing Our Class, she added, and staying for an after-performance discussion.
 
She said that when Agnieszka Arnold -- director of the documentary Neighbors, which predates Gross' book and which will be screened during the run of Our Class -- interviewed people, whether bystanders or participants, she always began by asking, "Did you ever visit a Jewish person's home?" and the answer was always, "No, never."
 
"But what's so different about us?" Zizka asked. "Do we visit people's homes in North Philadelphia? The people in Jedwabne knew their neighbors, and yet they didn't know them. And the same is true of so many of us. That is what the play speaks to."
 
The director insisted that Our Class is not a documentary play but rather a memory piece.
 
"Memory -- what and how we remember -- is also how we create who we are. Each of the characters in this play speaks the truth as he or she knows it. It is how they remember it -- or wish to remember it. And this act of remembering, however it is done, is true of any country, any nation, and it's how it forms its character."
 
As part of her research, Zizka traveled with playwright Slobodzianek throughout Poland and especially to Jedwabne (she kept a diary which can be found at the Wilma website). Though she was born in the former Czechoslovakia, this was her first trip to Poland.
 
She described the country as decidedly gray, and especially so in Jedwabne. She said she was reminded of a story in Polish writer Hanna Krall's book A Woman From Hamburg, which tells of a survivor, then living in California, who returns to his Polish hometown. He ends up wondering why there are no Jewish graves and why no one seemed sad about the missing Jews.
 
"In the story," Zizka explained, "Krall describes this hometown as ugly and gray and says that maybe it's because specters are wandering about. They don't want to leave because no one mourns for them. Jedwabne seemed like that to me. How come no one is sad? How come no one mourns the Jews that were murdered? Unmourned specters stay behind and that could account for the limitless grayness of the town."
 
This sense of a stunted, parched land is a key image Zizka has infused into the staging of the play. It is apparent in the set, which is dotted by bare, truncated trees. A large "glass" structure sits in the distance. Zizka said it could be a school or the ill-fated barn, though it's actual purpose is not made explicit in the production.
 
This glass house, she said "is for me a memory bank -- that's how I think of it -- a source of light or darkness, depending on what's happening on stage. But it's just there as a structure, caught in limbo."
 
Zizka said that the crowns of the trees on stage have been lopped off to suggest that the potential of these classmates has been blunted. This idea also came to her during her travels in Poland. Zizka said that she and the playwright traveled through many small towns just the size of Jedwabne.
 
In each of them, she said, she saw posters advertising concerts, lectures and art exhibits; in every town, there was culture -- except in Jedwabne. She asked playwright Tadeusz Slobodzianek why this was so and he theorized that cultural events would attract visitors, who might just remember what happened in Jedwabne, and the citizens would be forced to talk about it. So, the playwright suggested, the conspiracy of silence gets reinforced in this tiny town of some 2,000 individuals.
 
A colorless landscape, with haunted characters, is exactly what Our Class is about, reiterated Zizka. This is what happens when truth and memory are suppressed, she added, and no one faces the past.
 

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