“The growth of Nazism during the past few years frightens me. Today’s populist politicians use rhetoric that is identical to Mussolini’s and Hitler’s propaganda. New generations need to be told what happened during the war and they need to be reminded how it could happen,” Norwegian actor, director and playwright Bentein Baarson said.
Baarson learned about what happened in the concentration camps at a young age. His father was deeply affected by the inhuman conditions he lived under – he survived starvation, humiliation, horror and torture thanks to the bombing of Hiroshima.
“He was a walking corpse when the bomb fell, and probably would not have lived for more than a couple of days. I found it problematic that I was born thanks to an atomic bomb,” he says. “This has meant that I have spent my whole life trying to understand what brought the whole world into an inferno. We must not only focus on the five-year hell of war. What led to the explosion? What happened in Germany in the decades before the war started?”
That’s why when Mira Zuckermann, artistic director of Teater Manu in Norway, asked him to write a play that specifically addressed the situation of the deaf in Hitler’s Germany, he quickly realized that this was a topic that few people had examined.
The result was Crying Hands, a revealing look at what happened to the deaf and the disabled both before and during World War II. The show, which is produced here in collaboration with The Corcoran School of Arts and Design, Theatre & Dance Program of George Washington University, will play the Dorothy Betts Marvin Theatre March 7-9. The show is performed in both ASL and spoken English.
“I had absolutely no knowledge of the statutory sterilization of deaf men, women and children in Germany in the 1930s. Nor was I aware that already the Nazis had implemented systematic measures to eradicate the deaf, and that they considered this to be a natural part of their eugenics program,” Baarson says.
As he immersed himself in the material—especially paying note to the substantial writings of Horst Biesold, he decided the story should be communicated in a documentary manner, using photo montages as a backdrop to the actors’ performances.
closes March 9, 2019
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“Inspired by the interviews of the 10 deaf survivors in Israel, I focused on two characters—Hans and Gertrud. They are fictitious, but most of what they say comes from actual stories or events,” he says. “It’s a meeting between two random survivors of the Holocaust. It does not tell the full story though, the two main characters are not actual people, they are the bearers of stories on behalf of many individuals.”
Hans was born deaf, and the story follows his young adulthood in Berlin before the war broke out.”
The character had a keen interest in motorcycles and joined a Nazi stormtrooper unit along with other deaf people, but it was shut down on the orders of the Nazi leadership, as Hitler did not want disabled soldiers. The production follows Hans’ fate as a deaf political prisoner in Sachsenhausen and the Auschwitz concentration camp.
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“The greatest challenge was to distill the extensive material I collected. I had to make choices, and then take care of the two characters I had chosen to be the faces of my story,” Baarson says. “The play’s narrator became important in order to ‘legitimize’ actual and historical information in order to keep the story moving. The documentation in the form of projection of photos served as a sort of visual sounding board—like a living backdrop to the plot. The projections are intended to serve as a type of Greek chorus.”
Although the playwright needed to balance truth and fiction, he didn’t see that as being much of a barrier to getting the script finished, but it still took him two years to finish.
“It was important to me to bring the main characters to life without compromising reality. Everything they say is true; it happened, the material has been documented,” he says. “The challenge was to create a sort of ‘glue’ to create a theatrical context, to give the story and the characters’ credibility. And the greatest problem was to create a narrative framework—to weave the story together in a way that allows the audience to feel that this could happen to anyone, then or now. Who among us, both deaf and hearing people, could not have enthusiastically ended up in the grip of the Nazis? Who would have made a different choice? It is easy to moralize in hindsight.”
The play stars Eitan Zuckermann, Ipek D. Mehlum, Ronny Patrick Jacobsen and voice actor Kjersti Fjeldstad.
“I know the actors very well, and I wrote the script and invented the characters with them in mind,” Baarson says. “The actors have an artistic range that allows them to master their respective roles.”
Baarson has been a director with Teater Manu for almost 20 years, and has had the pleasure of being involved in building a national sign language theatre into an important institution in the Norwegian theater world.
“Sign language is a direct language, a naked language, one that requires the actors to lay themselves bare psychophysically,” he says. “In hearing theater, actors can veil themselves in flowery words, phrases and intonation. This production required the actors to appear as themselves on stage, they could not hide behind fictional parts. They talk about their characters, knowing that everything they say actually happened.”
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