By Pauline Dubkin Yearwood (04/18/2008)
Just when it seems there are no more new Holocaust stories to be told, one crops up.
That was the case with "Hana's Suitcase," a 2002 best-selling children's book by reporter Karen Levine. It told the intertwined true stories of Hana Brady, a young Jewish girl who perished at Auschwitz; her brother George, who survived; and a group of Japanese children who became enmeshed in Hana's story by coincidence when a mysterious suitcase turned up in an exhibit at the Tokyo Holocaust Center.
The suitcase had Hana Brady's name on it, but no other clues as to who she was or why her suitcase was sent to the center as a relic of the Holocaust. Led by their teacher, Fumiko Ishioka, the students began researching Hana's life and eventually found her surviving family members living in Canada. Piece by piece, they recreated Hana's tragic story. That story was originally the subject of a radio documentary in Canada, then was adapted for Levine's book, which received many awards and was translated and published around the world.
Now Chicago-area children and their parents will be able to explore Hana's story when Chicago Children's Theatre presents "Hana's Suitcase," a play based on the book and adapted for the stage by Emil Sher. It opens today, April 11 and runs through May 11 at the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs Storefront Theater in downtown Chicago. The organization Facing History and Ourselves has created study guides to go along with the production.
Directing the play is Sean Graney, one of the city's hottest directors. He's the founder and artistic director of The Hypocrites, an innovative local troupe, and has been at the helm of plays at Court Theatre and Steppenwolf, among others. Last summer he directed the popular production of "Honus and Me" for Chicago Children's Theatre.
When he took that job, Graney says, it was "sort of a shock to a lot of people that I would do children's theater." He accepted that assignment, as well as the current one, for a number of reasons.
"I really believe in the power of theater. I feel I've always kind of made children's theater for adults," he said in a recent phone conversation. "For me it doesn't matter if you're doing children's theater or adult theater, it's all about your relationship with the play."
In the case of "Hana's Suitcase," he says, "I loved the story so much. I found it very interesting to take this one culture that is not our culture, Japanese children trying to figure out about the Jewish culture in Czechoslovakia and about the Holocaust. That desire to connect through time, through nations, is such an interesting story. I ended up really falling in love with the script."
Contrary to expectations, he says, "It's a story of hope, not a story of despair. It shows not only the hope of these Japanese children trying to figure out what happened but their desire to stay connected to the world, to do their best to spread understanding and love to the world."
In telling the parallel story of Hana and her family, the play is inspiring in showing "the Jewish people who lived through the Holocaust or those who didn't make it. They all display such bravery, such hope."
Although the play is about a young girl who perished, "it doesn't present absolute despair and misery or
violence and cruelty," Graney says. "People survived, they faced the ruelty with love and hope, with family. Those things really held people together.
It's about the hope, the fact that these people were such strong-willed people to face this with such bravery and hope."
Beyond that, the story is an ntriguing mystery. "The Japanese children become sort of fixated on this
suitcase as a symbol, a gateway to what happened and to the girl who owned the suitcase. They want to
find out as much as they can about her, and they do," he says.
While the play is geared to children 10 and older, Graney says adults should enjoy it too. "The story is unique. I don't think the world has ever seen a story like this one," he says. What gives it such a twist, even
for those familiar with the Holocaust, is "to see the complete discovery of the Holocaust through the eyes of the Japanese children. It's less a part of their culture than it is of ours. That should be enough to intrigue adults as well as children."
When he directs for children especially, Graney says, "I always try to make the most interesting, engaging picture, to move from picture to picture to try to tell the story as clear as the play wants it to be.
Adults have a larger theatrical vocabulary. They've seen more plays.
In children's theater, if you're going to use a theatrical convention, if (children) are not accustomed to it from movies you have to set it up through a visual vocabulary or storytelling." To that end, projections
of Hana's drawings and of authentic documents and photos of Hana and her brother help bring the story to life.
In other ways, Graney says, "children are so much more forgiving.
Adults would analyze the psychology of why somebody did something. Children accept it, like, oh, he's really mad right now, I don't have to know why."
Working in children's theater is usually a highly positive experience, he adds. "Everybody has such high hopes for theater. People are really positive even when dealing with such heavy material."
That, Graney says, is the case with "Hana's Suitcase." "There is depressing material. It starts with the Japanese children desiring to connect and ends with them having to understand that this girl did not live through the Holocaust. Hana's journey is depressing and heartbreaking, but the journey of the Japanese children desiring to understand is a hopeful positive thing. It's so optimistic. It's not just about despair."
"Hana's Suitcase" runs from Friday, April 11 through Sunday, March 11 at the Department of Cultural Affairs Storefront Theater, 66 E.
Randolph, Chicago. For tickets, at $35 for adults, $20 for youths under 16, call (312) 742-TIXS (8497) or visit http://www.chicagochildrenstheatre.org/.