Local Productions Reimagine Anne Frank

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The story of Anne Frank and her family is one many know well.

But in 2018, what would Anne look like?

Local theater companies are lifting the curtain on her story now some 70 years later and looking at the themes still germane in her family’s journey.

“The story is important and ever more resonant now,” said David Bradley, director of The Diary of Anne Frank at People’s Light and Theatre Company in Malvern from Feb. 21 to March 31, “because we’re in a time where in the Philadelphia region and the nation and the world, we’re wrestling with anti-Semitism, with racism, with oppression. The Diary of Anne Frank is a story about anti-Semitism and oppression, and the terrible cost when one person or group or nation decides to squelch the humanity of another group.”

The cast of the production reflects the play’s contemporary relevance. While the story is still set in Amsterdam in the early 1940s and tells the tale of eight Jews in hiding, a multiracial and multiethnic cast bring to life the characters from Anne’s diary.

This decision allows the actors to infuse their own experiences into the story while still remaining true to the original.

“As we bring together the artists we’ve brought together, coming from all their different perspectives, we’re lifting up that capacity of theater to help us step into a story and make connections to it and activate empathy,” Bradley said, “because empathy and connecting others across difference, across experience — that’s how we build the kind of world we want.”

In preparing for the production — which will be complemented by community events such as speakers and panels — Bradley visited Amsterdam and Yad Vashem in Israel while on trips with his family. He and his family walked the canals of the city, which Anne wrote about in her diary.

In a haunting moment while visiting the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, Bradley realized they were in the house on the 73rd anniversary at the exact time that the Frank and van Pelt families were found and arrested.

“It was really resonant to steep myself in that,” he said. “You see these beautiful Amsterdam canals, you think of her and all the Jews who were robbed of the chance to grow up, to walk along canals, to have lives, to have children, just because of who they were.”

For the cast, the production was a chance to add their own voices and experiences.

Brittany Anikka Liu admitted while at first she was nervous to take on the role of Anne, she was able to identify with her values.

Brittany Anikka Liu plays Anne in The Diary of Anne Frank at People’s Light in Malvern.

“I realized at the core of it, she’s just a young girl becoming a woman within this short period of time within confinement,” said Liu, who is half-Chinese and grew up in New York. “Through her struggle of trying to find the light through their darkness, she finds the core of what makes her human and what gives her life.”

The cast visited the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., together and attended a Shabbat service at Mishkan Shalom, where Bradley is a member along with his Jewish wife and children. For Liu, these experiences helped her identify more with Anne and how Judaism played a role in Anne’s life.

The production as a whole, she said, is a nod to the universality of people trying to live within oppression.

“We never want to discount that this is a Jewish story,” she noted. “It’s not saying the Holocaust story is everyone’s story … but it is a nod to say that it happens in different communities in different ways. … At the core of it, it’s about humanity. It’s about just trying to live in these circumstances and to live freely within confinement, and I think her hunger and her longing for life is universal for people.”

Meantme, in the URBN Center Annex Black Box Theater, the Drexel Co-Op Theatre Company will illuminate Anne’s story with a nontraditional cast as well with a production of Anne Frank from Feb. 23 through March 3.

Associate Professor and Director Bill Fennelly especially seeks to highlight the genocides and refugees crises that are ongoing in the world today.

“I felt like in the moment we find ourselves living in politically in this country and politically globally, issues around hatred and intolerance seem to be a in a very particular way on the rise,” he said. “It felt like it was the time to look at this story again, and I thought it would be a compelling project for the university community.”

The production also created a collaboration with the film and television department. Some scenes were filmed and will play on 20 screens around the theater, while other points in the play will broadcast footage from World War II.

“If you have any expectations of what The Diary of Anne Frank will look like, instantly those are shelved,” Fennelly said. “From the beginning, it is very clear what this production is saying is while Anne Frank was a very particular young girl in human history, the possibility that Anne Frank could be anyone exists at any moment if nations, governments, people are driven by fear, violence and hatred, this can repeat itself, this can spring up anywhere.”

Vida Manalang was surprised she was cast, she reflected with a laugh.

She first read Diary when she was about Anne’s age, and while she could identify with her then, her words are more meaningful now.

Vida Manalang in rehearsal for The Diary of Anne Frank at Drexel University

“To be able to dig deeper into that and recognize her as a real human being as well as a historical character and as a child who is growing and changing has only made the honor and weight of her words so much heavier and so much more relevant,” said Manalang, a Drexel sophomore who was born in the Philippines and grew up in central New Jersey.

The themes of light and hope resonated with Manalang, who is excited to see the audience’s reactions while in the intimate theater.

“Bill always says, ‘This is not your mama’s Anne Frank,’” she laughed. “The whole production’s goal really is to widen the lens of the themes that The Diary of Anne Frank as a story has. It stays completely true to the characters and the story and the historical purpose of the story, but it’s not in a way that it’s completely tied down to one period of time because hatred, genocide and violence is sadly something that still exists in the world.”

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