In addition to exterminating millions of Jews, the Nazis also targeted the mentally and physically disabled under their eugenics program, aimed at weeding out people they considered genetically unfit. The precarious position of these so-called “defectives” underlies the play “My Sister,” now onstage at the Odyssey Theatre in West Los Angeles.
The action, which takes place in 1932 and ’33, centers on twin sisters who have moved to Berlin from the countryside to seek their fortune just as Hitler is coming to power. The sisters are played by real-life twins Elizabeth and Emily Hinkler. One sister, Magda (Emily), works during the day as a hospital orderly but dreams of being a performer and gets a job entertaining in a cabaret on weekends. Her twin, Matilde (Elizabeth), who writes the material for Magda’s act, has cerebral palsy and so is confined to their flat.
Playwright Janet Schlapkohl recalled that a “perfect storm of events and circumstance” led to the development of this work. Her mother is an identical twin, and Schlapkohl runs a theater company for people who are physically and intellectually challenged. In addition, she was researching members of her family who left Germany after World War I.
“I’m not Jewish and they were not Jewish, but the fears about the type of government that was going to happen were things that I had heard family members discuss as a child,” she said. “That piqued my interest.”
In her play, developed in 2012 and previously produced at the 2015 Hollywood Fringe Festival, Schlapkohl focuses on how the upheaval that took place in Germany during the early 1930s impacts the two sisters. She has created a conflict between the twins, who hold different perspectives on the rise of the Nazis. Magda isn’t as astute as her sister and initially doesn’t see the danger that lies ahead.
“On the other hand, her sister, who’s at home with the radio for companionship during the day, is more aware,” Schlapkohl said. “Matilde, who’s putting it together, is a step ahead, only a step ahead. She becomes increasingly aware of the rhetoric against people with disabilities.”
The playwright added that the Nazis “were playing off of things that people were probably already feeling about some of the people that were disabled, about Jews, about the homosexuals who were also ‘other,’ ‘different.’
“I’m trying to root [the story] in the time. What did [the sisters] possibly know? And what could they do with that knowledge, and what should they do with that knowledge? What would I have done with that knowledge?”
Director Ron Sossi pointed out that there is a great deal Magda doesn’t know. In her naiveté, she fails to understand the actual fate of the sickest patients at the hospital. “She talks about how things are evolving, and they’re beginning to send very desperate patients to this clinic, and she thinks it’s a very positive thing that’s going on, that they’re suddenly getting the medical care they need. It turns out it’s not that at all.”
Things come to a head when Magda returns home from the hospital in shock because a nearly blind little boy to whom she was very attached has been transported in a van to the “clinic” she once believed was a place where people got special care. When she tells the nurse that the boy forgot his glasses, the nurse says not to worry, that he won’t need them.
“She then realizes what the vans are [and] where these patients are being taken,” Sossi said. “She comes home devastated. And in the middle of that devastation, suddenly there’s noise outside.”
The sisters look out their window and see the infamous Reichstag fire, which the Nazis blamed on the Communists and used to their advantage, solidifying their power and suspending most civil liberties in Germany.
“So those two things that happen to her definitely put her into reality,” Sossi continued. “She just wants to stay in bed and cover her head with the covers, and never go to the cabaret again.”
But Matilde persuades her to go, do her act, and behave as if everything is normal. There are Nazis in the audience who are unresponsive to her risqué jokes, and Magda ends by singing a German folk song and raising her hand in a Nazi salute.
“So in that last cabaret sequence, Magda is terrified and goes along,” Sossi said.
Meanwhile, Matilde tries to leave the apartment to see Magda perform, but she falls on the stairs. When help is called, the authorities become aware of her disability.
Schlapkohl said the primary issue she explores in the play is how we perceive one another. “What might it take for us to perceive each other as something so horrific that we would go along with extermination?”
She continued, “And how can we change our perception? How do we stay alert to how we view each other? What do we need to do to make ourselves keep asking really difficult questions about the opinions that we hold toward people who are not exactly like us?”
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