Our Class Comes to The Wilma Theater

01 Oct 2011

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The Wilma Theater’s production of Our Class. Photo by Alexander Iziliaev.

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The Wilma Theater's production of Our Class. Photo by Alexander Iziliaev.

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Our Class primitive voice workshop with Jean-Rene Touissant. Photo courtesy of The Wilma Theater.

"I was a little bit afraid," admits Blanka Zizka, when describing her initial work on The Wilma Theater's Center-supported production and U.S. premiere of Our Class, a controversial and emotionally charged play by Polish writer Tadeusz Slobodzianek. The play's U.S. premiere, supported by The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, ran through November 13, 2011. The play has been described as "intense", "overpowering", and "tremendously unsettling", thanks to its subject matter: the mass slaughter of 1,600 Jews in a small town in Poland, on a single day in 1941, just before the Germans took control of the country after a Soviet occupation. The history of these murders, long believed to have been perpetrated by German invaders, was turned on its head years later, first by Neighbors, a 1997 documentary film by Agnieszka Arnold, and then a 2000 book of the same title by Jan Gross—both of which posit that the murderers were the Catholic residents of that town, Jedwabne, who turned on their Jewish neighbors in the face of fear and paranoia.

Howard Shapiro of the Philadelphia Inquirer writes that Our Class "lays out an acceleration of hatred," marked by a "constant feeling of entrapment." Slobodzianek's script follows a group of classmates—five Jews and five Catholic Poles—through childhood to the end of their lives. The first act ends with the 1941 massacre and the second half follows the lives of the survivors through the turn of the century, described by Zizka as a "moral navigation through what has been done and how to deal with it." Zizka, the Artistic Director at the Wilma, preceded this fall's production with a trip to Poland, to meet Slobodzianek, visit Jedwabne, and to see a Polish production of Our Class, which has run continuously in Warsaw since 2010. In a blog entry about her trip, Zizka explains the enormity of the issue to Polish residents living today, and how it has affected the reception of the play: "The Poles, who suffered enormously during World War II, have always seen themselves as victims of the war, not as perpetrators of violence. Passions haven't subsided to this day. According to Tadeusz, the production gets attacked from all sides because audience members expect the play to confirm their specific opinions."

In the Jewish Exponent, Zizka explains that Our Class is not a documentary piece, but rather an exploration of this incident, told through memory—a reflection of the myriad ways in which we absorb, retell, and repeat history: "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." In order to capture the emotional intensity of the subject matter, the cast participated in an ensemble-building workshop in July with Jean-Rene Toussaint, renowned director and originator of the Stemwerk vocal training technique, which focuses on the voice as the fundamental building-block of acting. Cast member Ross Beschler wrote, "Over the course of four days, [Toussaint] put my instrument in touch with something old and primal in such a visceral, tangible way. I took risks with my fellow actors that I don't think I've ever taken before." Cast member Krista Apple said in the Inquirer that these exercises "free [the actors] up to go to magical and horrible places." The Wilma has continued this kind of intense ensemble work, and it has remained a hallmark of ongoing productions.