Drama in a ‘Class’ of its own

In the most searing sequence in Tadeusz Słobodzianek’s “Our Class” — a controversial play about Polish-Jewish relations now at the Atwater Village Theatre through at least May 5 — actors playing Polish nationalists lift chairs symbolizing their Jewish neighbors and mime the bludgeoning of bodies in a rural barn during the Holocaust. A Jewish character named Dora, carrying her infant son, then steps atop the chairs as she recounts how she and the rest of the town’s Jews were subsequently forced into the barn as the doors were locked, the structure set ablaze and all the victims burned alive.

The sequence is underplayed, but horrific.

“The most severe and extreme moments of the play had to be written and indeed performed with as light a touch as possible, because you can’t match the hideous events that are happening,” said Ryan Craig, the British dramatist who adapted the Polish-language play into English for its world premiere at the National Theatre in London in 2009.

The first Polish drama to be given the country’s prestigious Nike Literary Award, “Our Class” was inspired by a real pogrom that took place in Jedwabne, Poland, on July 10, 1941 — as well as similar massacres in neighboring villages — when the Catholic half of the town murdered the entire population of 1,600 Jewish residents.  

The play was largely inspired by Jan T. Gross’ controversial 2002 book “Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland,” which asserts that the atrocities were committed not by the German occupiers as previously believed, but by the Polish villagers with little or no encouragement from the Nazis. The book prompted an official apology by then-Polish President Alexander Kwasniewski as well as angry retorts that the book — and later the play — exaggerates the degree of Polish complicity and suggests that all Poles are anti-Semitic, requiring a collective mea culpa.  

Craig begs to differ:  “The play is based on thorough historical research, so if you think there’s demonization going on, you need to speak to the historians rather than the playwright,” he said in an interview from London. “But the playwright is not attempting to demonize the Poles, and I certainly worked very hard not to demonize anyone. I wanted to make sure that all the characters were fully rounded, and while some of them are victims, all of them are flawed in one way or another.”

“Our Class” revolves around 10 diverse members of a kindergarten class who appear first as innocents and playmates. Through successive Soviet and Nazi occupations, however, they are prompted to become victims or perpetrators — and sometimes both — in events that span from 1925 to the present. 

For example, Zygmunt, a fierce Polish nationalist, commits some of the worst atrocities in the play, but during the Soviet regime is viciously tortured by Menachem, a Jewish survivor-turned-Russian secret service officer. The Catholic Zocha refuses to assist victims of the pogrom, except for Menachem, whom she hides in her hayloft because she is in love with him; Wladek, an alcoholic peasant, spews anti-Semitic slurs even as he shelters Rachelka, who is pressured to convert to Catholicism in order to marry him and who resents their union; and Menachem, the victim-turned-perpetrator, abandons his wife and baby to their fate in the barn while romancing Zocha in her hayloft.

“Our Class’s” director locally, Matthew McCray, who is also the artistic director of Son of Semele, the ensemble performing the Los Angeles production, said he doesn’t perceive “Our Class” as a traditional Holocaust play.  

“This is where we get into touchy subjects, because as a non-Jew and non-Pole, I have to tread carefully,” he said.  “But in some ways the play is about humanity as a whole; it’s about how people interrelate from different communities.” 

Craig, 41, approached the material with his own painful Jewish history. Although one of his grandparents is Irish-Catholic, his paternal great-grandfather came to Britain to escape pogroms near Bialystok, while his mother’s family consists of Sephardic Jews who fled Nazi-occupied Holland for London.

As a boy, Craig recalls, non-Jewish children threw bacon and spouted slurs at him as he walked to Hebrew school in North London. And he was furious with Britain’s own history of pogroms, in particular a massacre in medieval times when the Jews of York were burned alive in a local building.  

“For a long time, I was very angry,” he said of British-Jewish history, adding that he even refused to visit a girlfriend in York because of what had happened there. 

But Craig worked out those demons by writing plays that explored anti-Semitism, such as “The Glass Room,” which spotlights a Holocaust denier: “By getting inside the minds of [anti-Semites], I was able to learn how these attitudes develop,” he said.

Even though he was initially reluctant to take on another Jewish-themed play when the National approached him about “Our Class,” he soon was drawn to the moral complexity of the material. “I’m not excusing anything that happened in Jedwabne, but I think there’s a sort of cultural victimhood that the Poles went through that led them to become persecutors,” he said.

Craig worked closely with Słobodzianek as he adapted the play several years ago:  “He’s the largest human being I’ve ever met; physically, he’s a planet,” Craig recalled. “He looks like [former Soviet leader Nikita] Khrushchev, and when I first met him he was quite grumpy — he doesn’t speak much English — and he initially was quite dismissive of me and was anxious because the play had never been produced anywhere in the world at that time. It was too controversial still in Poland, where Tadeusz was regarded as a traitor. But he didn’t care about that in the least; he intended the play as a lesson to his own people, as a means of reflecting back to them the darker parts of the Polish experience.”

When McCray took on the West Coast premiere of “Our Class,” he meticulously researched the historical events surrounding the play but also attended a three-hour meeting with the Polish consul general and cultural attaché in Los Angeles. 

“They were cautious that I had an agenda to stir the pot, to make people angry by depicting a one-sided opinion of what had happened,” he said. “I think their message was that this happened and it was horrible, but it’s also important to discuss the historical context surrounding it and how we can improve Polish-Jewish relations from here.”

For tickets and information, visit www.sonofsemele.org.