Two years ago, Saint John Theatre Company‘s artistic director Stephen Tobias experienced Two Planks And A Passion Theatre‘s production of 937 – The Spirit of St Louis at the Atlantic FRINGE Festival and knew he wanted to share this experience with the Saint John community. This unique production explores the story of one Jewish family escaping Nazi persecution and is told without words. For the past year, he has worked with the Saint John Jewish Historical Museum and the Anglophone School District – South to produce a two week tour at various schools and several community shows in the greater Saint John area.
The title 937 refers to the number of Jewish refugees who boarded the S.S. St. Louis in Germany in 1939 to flee Nazi persecution. The voyage was planned for Cuba, but upon arrival the refugees were turned away. The St. Louis tried to port in the United States and Canada, but was denied entry. Ultimately, the passengers were unable to find a safe port in North America and were forced to return to Europe. Some were able to disembark in Britain, while others were allowed entry to France and Belgium, both to become occupied by Nazi forces. 250 of the original passengers did not survive the war. Canada had the opportunity to help these refugees. This little known event challenges Canadians to examine our role on a national and global level, and the tragedy of the S.S. St. Louis helped change the canadian psyche. In the words of Israel Unger, a holocaust survivor, “When there are disasters we do admit people. We have learned.”
937 has been performed for communities and schools throughout Atlantic Canada over the last three years. As described by Two Planks And A Passion Theatre‘s artistic director Ken Schwartz, this production explored the plight of the refugee. The play explores what might happen if the artifacts of the people who didn’t survive could tell their stories. This is achieved on stage by Michael McPhee, Alexis Milligan, Andrea-Lee Norwood and Rachel Hastings discovering and masterfully animating clothing artifacts through puppetry. The characters of a father, mother, and child come to life, and their experiences and emotions are conveyed without words. The story instead comes to life through music and historical soundbites. The soundtrack and performances of the cast create an incredibly successful and unique experience.
During one of the recent performances of 937, Carolyn Gammon was in the audience. She is a holocaust education consultant in Germany and described this production as one of the best pieces she has ever seen. By presenting the story without words, the hateful and racist language is eliminated. What is portrayed instead is the powerful emotions of people. The silence allows the audience to create their own words and narrative, allowing them ownership and understanding of the story.
To work without words creates a dignified experience in a subject that examines human depravity and hate.
The gravity of the subject matter is intertwined with the human experiences of joy, love, and thoughtfulness. While the play tells the tragic story of the unsuccessful escape of Jewish refugees during World War Two, it is not overwhelming with sadness. Rather, the beautiful nature of human beings perseveres, and the viewer is left with hope. A question and answer segment is provided after the production to help the audience understand and appreciate what they just witnessed.
When two cast members first enter the stage and begin exploring older appearing luggage and its contents, it leaves one wondering at the experience. Suddenly, a piano solo by Chopin fills the air and the actors bring the clothes to life. Personality and character is seamlessly transposed onto clothing being held and manipulated by incredibly talented performers. At many points throughout the show, it is easy to forget that the clothing does not contain living and breathing people. This is an amazing and beautiful performance. And yes, it is possible to cry about a coat being put away into storage.
Two shows are available to the public on Saturday, April 18th at 2:00pm and 7:30pm at the BMO Studio Theatre located within the Saint John Theatre Company at 112 Princess Street, Saint John. For tickets, please call 1-888-311-9090 or 652-7582 or visit www.ticketpro.ca