Monday, March 18, 2019

"The Last Jews of Kalisz"- Keeping Alive The Rich Legacy of the Jews of Poland

Kudos to author Irv Kempner for his commitment to keep alive the memory of his father, David Kempner, who survived the Holocaust to live a full life in America. This very personal book, "The Last Jews of Kalisz," is also a loving tribute to the countless Jews from David's home town of Kalisz, Poland, who perished under the thumb of the Third Reich and their Polish collaborators.

The early chapters of this book set the scene and tell the history of Jews in Kalisz in Western Poland, perilously close to the German border. Jewish history of Kalisz began in the 12th century with settlers who were fleeing Crusaders. Over the years, the Jewish population of the city grew to close to 35%, and stayed that way until the purges began.

As I read the story of Mr. Kempner and his family and fellow citizens, I was reminded of the notorious quotation often attributed to Joseph Stalin: "A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic." By highlighting his father's tale of survival in contradistinction to the death of many of his family members, author Kempner moves the reader beyond mere statistics to make the tragedy of the Holocaust very personal. Writing this book is only one part of Kempner;s commitment to uphold the memory of the Jews of Kalisz. He is involved in a movement called March of the Living that brings visitors to Poland and Germany to learn details about the history of the Holocaust.

After being liberated from a death camp in May of 1945, David Kempner made good on a promise he had made to a young woman he had met before his imprisonment. He tracked Marilla Freidenreich down in Germany. Not long afterward they were married. Thanks to the kindness of a boyhood friend from Kalisz who had emigrated to America, the newlyweds were sponsored to resettle in the U.S. by Manny Duell. David started as a low-wage worker in the garment industry, and eventually founded his own successful company.

My reason for giving this fine book 4 stars rather than 5 is the author's propensity for needless repetition. He often repeats the same information several times within the same page or paragraph. For the second edition, some judicious editing will make this important book  even more compelling reading.


"If Pretty Hurts Ugly Must Be A Muhfucka" by Tori Sampson - at Playwrights Horizons

Tori Sampson is a new voice that should be - and can be - heard when you travel to Playwrights Horizons to see her play "If Pretty Hurts Ugly Must Be A Muhfucka," She adapts a Nigerian folk tale, and uses Beyonce lyrics to address the issue of beauty and body image among teenage girls. She stands on the shoulders of Middle Ages Morality plays, and claims August Wilson's "Fences" as a strong creative inspiration for her writing. There is a bow to "Mean Girls" in the interactions among the village girls.

Massassi (Antoinette Crowe-Legacy) is the prettiest girl in her village, coddled and sheltered by her parents. Maechi Aharanwa and Jason Bowen. Her fellow 17 year-olds resent her for her beauty and perfection, and plot to remove her as a threat by drowning her in a nearby river. Her rivals are Akim (Nike Uche Kadri), Adama (Mirirai Sithole),and Kaya (Prumzile Sitole). The role of Kasim, the young man who catches the eye of Massassi, is played by Leland Fowler.

Antoinette Crowe-Legacy
Nike Uche Kari, Mirirai Sithole, Phumzile Sitole
"If Pretty Hurts. . ."
by Tori Sampson
at Playwrights Horizons
Through April 5

The tale is narrated by Rotimi Agbabiaka, as Chorus. He throws a good bit of campy Billy Porter into his vibrant portrayal of the voice of the village oral tradition.

The plot to drown Massassi is complicated by the fact that the river is inhabited by river spirits. In the most visually and aurally stunning scene in the play, we see Massassi being welcomed by the spirits, accompanied by a soaring Gospel rendition by Carla R. Stewart as The Voice of the River.

The Drowning Scene
"If Pretty Hurts. . ."
by Tori Sampson
at Playwrights Horizons
Through April 5
There is a scene that closes the play that shows one of the girls sitting at a makeup table applying beauty products while gazing in a mirror. Ms. Sampson is offering this play as a mirror to prompt us to take a look at ourselves and at our culture's preoccupation with surface beauty while ignoring deeper values. While this play is not perfect and could use some judicious cutting, it is a compelling examination of a contemporary issue that rightly has caught the eye of a number of  playwrights.

The cast is well directed by Leah C. Gardiner. The shimmering Scenic Design is by Louisa Thompson, Costumes by Dede Ayite, Lighting by Matt Frey. Original Music and Sound Design are by Ian Scot.

The play run at Playwrights Horizons through April 5th, and is worthy of your patronage and consideration.