When Igor Golyak, founder and artistic director of Needham’s Arlekin Players Theatre, was researching “The Merchant of Venice,” he was smacked in the face by the discovery that Jews have been on the move throughout the span of their existence.
Their constant migration reminded him of his own family, which emigrated in 2004 from Ukraine.
Then, on July 1, Brighton Rabbi Shlomo Noginski was stabbed. Golyak attended a meeting with other Jewish refugees and he remembers someone asking, “Where do we go now?”
“My family came here to escape antisemitism. What I suddenly understood is that there is no escaping antisemitism,” Golyak said.
That realization was the germ of the bold and complex new virtual documentary theater piece, “Witness,” which follows the migratory experience of Jews throughout history. Based on interviews of Jewish people around the world by the Arlekin company members, along with historical records and documents, this timely piece will tell a multiplicity of stories of migration, displacement, home, and identity.
“I want to make antisemitism and hate visible to people so they see that it doesn’t live only with Nazis and in history, but is here today. That’s the first step to trying to identify the problem,” Golyak said.
Golyak enlisted the help of Moscow-based playwright Nana Grinstein to translate his idea into a script. He explained he wanted the play to be “documentary theater” – built out of historical primary sources (letters, journals, telegrams, newspapers, etc.) and interviews describing firsthand experiences – about what makes Jews move around the world.
Grinstein often works on this type of project and did a deep dive into what historical options existed that could be an accurate metaphor.
She proposed the history of the S.S. St. Louis, which sailed from Nazi Germany in 1939 shortly after Kristallnacht, but was not accepted at ports in Cuba, the United States, or Canada. The more than 900 Jews on board, who understood their return to Germany meant certain death, spent several weeks on the ocean.
“The Holocaust is impossible to understand to this day. As one of the St. Louis passengers said, ‘I don’t understand how the world could watch this and nobody did anything about it.’ I hope the audience will find themselves in the shoes of the Jews, who have been, and still are, under the pressure of antisemitism, which has many forms – from everyday xenophobia to terror and massacres,” Grinstein said.
The ship returned to Europe, and passengers who disembarked in Belgium scattered to other countries. Some ended up in concentration camps.
Golyak loved the St. Louis metaphor for the concept: Where do people go? He next contacted dramatist Blair Cadden, whose job would be to help bring “Witness” to life by learning as much as possible about the play, the medium (virtual, immersive, and interactive) and the context of its creation.
The end result will be a blend of prerecorded and live performances. Set on a boat in digital space, actors and audience members will share a live interactive experience as they move together between countries and time periods in a game of life and death set in a virtual world. Previews begin Dec. 10 with the world premiere scheduled for Dec. 13.
“The St. Louis is a vivid microcosm of the larger experience that is shared by so many Jews across the world,” Cadden explained by email. “Documentary theater is an exciting genre because it invites the audience to form a different connection with that history. Things that might feel very distant when we encounter them in the pages of a history book take a new immediacy in live theater.”
The performance, accessible on Zoom to an international audience through Arlekin’s Zero Gravity (zero-G) Virtual Theater Lab, allows the audience to gather from across geographical locations and time zones. The Arlekin team hopes people will share their own emigration stories for inclusion in the production (to share a story, email email@example.com or visit www.arlekinplayers.com/witness/)
Golyak hasn’t decided yet if parts of his own story will be included. He was brought up in the Soviet Union, where being Jewish was difficult. When he was 8, his father paused one morning while shaving, faced his son, and told him: “Oh, by the way, you’re Jewish.”
He then turned back to the mirror and continued shaving.
“It was like finding out you are from Mars,” Golyak said without a laugh. There was no context in Russia for what being Jewish entailed. “How does that affect who I am? There’s no language, there’s no land. I’m told I am a Jew, but what does that actually mean?” It is a question he is still trying to answer.
Cadden, who is not Jewish and whose ancestors came to the U.S. so long ago that no one in her family remembers exactly when, hopes the common threads between the experience of the St. Louis passengers and the experiences of more recent immigrants and refugees will affect Jews and non-Jews alike. For those who share the Jewish heritage and/or immigrant experience, she hopes it will be a moment to feel seen and connected.
For everyone, it should be “an eye-opener to the continued prevalence of antisemitism and antisemitism in our own society and an invitation to empathize with the experiences of immigration and this search for Jewish identity and a sense of belonging,” she said.
Golyak hopes his “Witness” makes the audience aware of the prevalence of antisemitism today. “That’s the first step: to identify the problem. And then, hopefully, this will inspire people to think about and acknowledge the fact that this problem exists, so we can somehow try to solve it.”
For more information or to buy tickets, visit www.arlekinplayers.com/2021-22-season.