Play sends teens into depths of Holocaust

Published April 24, 2007

The Jewish father looks into his daughter's eyes and tells her the Nazis' so-called work camps aren't really work camps at all.

Knowing she may one day end up in one of the camps, the daughter pleads to know what really happens when Jews are carted off. The father refuses to say, and with tears in his eyes, he tells her to go to sleep and simply dream about the stars.

That's just one of the moving scenes from Anne Frank & Me, a Tampa Jewish Community Center production being performed Wednesday at Congregation Schaarai Zedek. Any play revolving around the Holocaust is going to strike upon raw emotions, but you might be surprised to learn it's a group of area teens who are bringing the complex life-and-death scenarios to the stage.

"It took quite a few of us a while to get used to it," explained Thompson Chesnutt, a Gibbs High freshman who portrays the father. "It was scary to think about it. Now that I've done this, I take the Holocaust more seriously, on a different level."

New York playwright Cherie Bennett penned Anne Frank & Me in 1994 after watching a 60 Minutes report featuring Holocaust deniers portraying the Nazi extermination of the Jews as a "deception."

The play challenges such denials by showing how a group of teens discover the truth through a dream sequence that takes the lead character from modern times back to 1942 Paris, where she is part of a Jewish family hoping not to be carried away by Nazis.

The cast ranges in age from 11 to 16, and from all accounts the production has helped them develop a deeper understanding of the atrocities of Adolf Hitler.

"It's connected things," said Leah Wasserman, the lead and a Hillel seventh-grader whose studies this year included a trip to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. "It's given me a new perspective. You think more about what it's like to be forced into hiding from cataclysmic gas chambers."

Director Diana Lucas Leavengood, who has worked on notable local productions such as Webb City and Crossing the Bay, uses rehearsals to block scenes and teach lessons. At times, the cast members, who include her daughter Alice, have struggled to understand some of the challenges.

There are other moments, however, when Leavengood realizes her young troupe is connecting to the most unnerving aspects of the Holocaust.

"Alice is only 11 and I read The Diary of Anne Frank when I was 14," Leavengood explained. "So I wonder if I'm chipping some years off her childhood. On the other hand, I think these are critical times we live in. Knowledge is power and the only way to prevent a second genocide is to understand this one."

Leavengood says you can't overteach the Holocaust, and I have to agree. This particular art form makes it more accessible for young and old, and I'm certain the audience will come away talking about the subject - and the performances that belie the cast's youth.

That's all I'm saying.

Ernest Hooper can be reached at hooper@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3406.

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If you go

Anne Frank & Me will be performed at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and May 2 at Congregation Schaarai Zedek, 3303 W Swann Ave., Tampa. $10 ($8 for students and seniors). Limited seating. Call (813) 264-9000 or go to www.jewishtampa.com.