September 25, 2018

The Ghosts of ‘Riga’

While writing an aria based on a speech by Joseph Goebbels, for his 1991 opera, “The Ghosts of Versailles,” William M. Hoffman was visited by ghosts of his murdered family.

“I started to wonder what I would be doing if I were at that moment in Auschwitz,” says the award-winning playwright, the son of Holocaust refugees. “I became aware that I might have died in a death factory or in Latvia, along with scores of other members of my family.”

Hoffman would awaken, crying and sweating from nightmares. Whenever his lover touched him, he felt as if he were a corpse. He recalled long-repressed memories from childhood, recollections of his mother whispering and sobbing about her dead relatives.

The feelings colored Hoffman’s days and repeatedly ruined his relationships until he began writing “Riga,” now a world première presented by the Venture West Theatre Company at the John Anson Ford Amphitheater. The play “worked an exorcism,” he says.

In the love story of two men, one African-American, one Jewish and the son of Holocaust survivors, both protagonists are struggling to come to terms with their childhoods and to cope with racism and homophobia.

Hoffman has a caveat for anyone thinking of seeing the show: The caustically funny piece is meant to shock. The relationship between the gay lovers is sexually explicit; hatemongers spew racist epithets; and there is an outrageous parody of the notorious anti-Semitic tract “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.”

There are also vivid details of genocide, taken from the Hoffman family experience. A baby is smashed bloody; a grandmother and aunt are shot into mass graves.

“But the play is not a memorial to my family,” the stocky, redheaded playwright says. “I wasn’t interested in ‘Yizkor.’ I wanted to make people recognize how much hate there is in the world today.”


hen Hoffman’s parents learned about the Latvian genocide during World War II, both suffered nervous breakdowns. Three-year-old Hoffman and his brother were whisked away to a foster home, where they remained for a year and a half. “It was jarring,” Hoffman, 59, says, wiping a tear from his eye. “I didn’t know how to speak English, because my parents had raised me in Yiddish, Russian and German. Whenever my mother visited me, I used to cry and cry.”

One day, after the war, a strange woman visited his mother and urgently spoke with her in Latvian. The small boy listened at the keyhole. “I think she described the murder of my family,” Hoffman says. “After that, my mother spoke incoherently, and she did not get out of bed. She was never the same…. I had to raise myself.”

When Hoffman began writing plays for companies such as the Circle Repertory in New York in the 1960s, he avoided autobiographical subjects because he “was not ready to deal with the Holocaust.”

The Shoah nevertheless colored his worldview. When the AIDS epidemic struck, Hoffman was not overcome. “For me, all the death was normal,” says the writer, who penned one of the first plays about AIDS, “As Is,” in 1985. The landmark drama, directed by “Riga” director Marshall W. Mason, earned Hoffman an Obie, a Drama Desk Prize and a Tony Award nomination.

Several years later, while the internationally acclaimed “Ghosts of Versailles” was playing to sold-out houses at the Metropolitan Opera, Hoffman began researching “Riga.” He studied “Mein Kampf” and the speeches of the Rev. Louis Farrakhan and purchased the hate library of a deceased American Nazi leader. He attended the trial of white supremacists who had murdered Denver radio host Alan Berg, posing as a neo-Nazi. And, in 1994, he traveled to Latvia, where he visited the Nazi killing fields and his mother’s old apartment in Liepaja.

The flat was decrepit, he recalls, and the resident, an elderly Russian woman, asked him where the Jews had hidden all their gold. Hoffman captures the moment in “Riga,” a play he describes as a form of “cultural terrorism.”

Though producers begged him to “tone down” the “Protocols of Zion” sequence, Hoffman decided to “make it worse.” “People don’t realize that ‘Protocols’ is the second-best selling book in the world, after the Bible,” he says. “Jews need to hear that.”

“Riga” plays through Feb. 27. For tickets, call (323) 660-TKTS.