In 1939, the MS St. Louis carried over 900 mostly Jewish refugees on the infamous “Voyage of the Damned” from Hamburg in Nazi Germany to Cuba, Canada and the United States — all of which refused them asylum. Cuba did accept 28 people, most of whom held US visas, and ultimately Belgium, France, the Netherlands and the UK took in other refugees. But historians estimate 254 of the ill-fated ship’s passengers later died in the Holocaust.
Flash forward to January 2017, when playwright Jennifer Maisel was feeling “frozen” in the aftermath of the presidential election two months earlier. Fascinated with histories and novels of the Holocaust since childhood, her interest was piqued when someone tweeted the St. Louis manifest. Subsequent tweets weren’t just about Gustav Schröder valiantly captaining it across the Atlantic and back, but about individual families who’d landed in London and survived while others corralled by the Nazis in Belgium perished in concentration camps.
“It resonated with me so greatly,” she recalls. “I didn’t know what to write because it felt like the world had changed so radically [post-election]. I didn’t feel I could write something trivial. I started looking at news articles from the 1930s in The New York Times, and the only difference between them and the current news articles was the ones in the ’30s were about the Jewish refugee problem and the ones from 2017 were about the Muslim refugee problem.
“I’m also part of this group in LA called Playwrights Union; every February we do this challenge to write a first draft of a play in a month. I had just signed up, Trump took office, the next day was the Muslim ban — and that was the day I started writing the play.”
The work synergistically seeded by those events is “Eight Nights,” beginning previews tonight, Oct. 31, and receiving its world premiere from Antaeus Theatre Company. Directed by Emily Chase, the cast is headed by Tessa Auberjonois as Rebecca, a German Jewish Holocaust survivor, and noted film and stage character actor Arye Gross as Rebecca’s father; they are joined onstage by Devin Kawaoka, Christopher Watson, Karen Malina White, Zoe Yale (as the younger Rebecca) and Josh Zuckerman.
Opening on the night Rebecca arrives in the United States in December 1948, the play moves through eight nights of Hanukkah across eight decades and ends on Dec. 31, 2016.
Throughout, history interacts fluidly with the future.
“It is about the legacy of trauma,” Maisel explains. “To me, this is about trajectory. It’s not just a Holocaust play, which is the easy way to describe it.
“A question I’ve always had is, how do people go on after something like this happens to them? Look forward? Have a family? Have a life? Dance at a wedding? It’s a struggle for many. Primo Levi committed suicide, and obviously there were some others. But we look at all the cultures that have gone through this, from African American slave culture to Japanese Americans in the internment camps, to the people who were in the Holocaust, and the Armenian genocide; people survive and move on in varying ways. …
“The sad thing to me is that this play has become increasingly relevant. At the time I wrote this, the Syrian crisis was at the forefront; now it has become the crisis at the [US-Mexico] border as well.”
And in the week since Maisel made those comments, Syria has been thrust back into the frontlines of international concern.
“The idea of history repeating itself is very present, and turning refugees from other countries away from our borders is a very significant message of this play,” says Auberjonois, a veteran actress who’s also a faculty member at the California School of the Arts in Durate. “It’s a way of examining it through the lens of what happened leading up to the Holocaust, and then after the Holocaust, and the effect it has on people’s lives.” She says her family tree includes Holocaust victims as well as survivors, and she gleaned cultural insights into Rebecca from her grandmother’s history as an immigrant and seamstress in New York.
Maisel recalls one of the first readings, given in Orange County to a largely Latinx audience: “The cast was largely children of immigrants, and they felt this was the possibility of their story.” Last October’s Tree of Life synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh prompted an “8 Nights of Eight Nights” tour of readings to raise money and awareness for humanitarian nonprofit HIAS, because the shooter had condemned the synagogue’s support of the organization’s work aiding refugees.
Despite its weighty themes, Auberjonois and Maisel emphasize the humor and warmth in “Eight Nights.” Auberjonois says Rebecca’s rise from unspeakable loss to the rediscovery of joy reminds her of “the typical phases of grief.”
“It’s always amazing to me how rich the Holocaust is in its potential for telling stories,” she observes. “People continue to mine the Holocaust for relevance. This is an examination of yet another aspect of it, and I don’t know where else this story is told in this particular way. … It asks the question over and over again: Could it happen again? Is it happening again? Where is it happening again? … Let the Holocaust serve as a reminder so that this does not happen again.”
Maisel says she obviously hopes viewers will love the play, but chiefly wants them to ponder what action or support they can take.
“That can be anything from opening their eyes to how history is cycling back in a way that is terrifying, or understanding better that we need to all be in this together; we all need to be responsible for what’s happening at the border. We all need to take actions — large, small — just to make the world a little bit better now for everyone. Because there isn’t really one person in this country, unless they’re Native American, who wasn’t a refugee in some way, shape or form, or who wasn’t coming here as an immigrant. … Right now, in our world, we need to use our art to further conversation and thought and hopefully action.” n
“Eight Nights” begins previews on Thursday, Oct. 31, and receives its world premiere at the Kiki & David Gindler Performing Arts Center, 110 E. Broadway, Glendale, at 8 p.m. Friday, Nov. 8; the play runs through Dec. 16. Tickets are $35 (preview performances are $15). Reservations/info: (818) 506-1983. jennifermaisel.com, tessaauberjonois.com, antaeus.org.