Thursday, June 24, 2010

Heavyweights of the Twentieth Century

Above, the terrifying sign hanging above the entrance to Auschwitz.

We should get a review today from The Los Angeles Times.  I'll post it in a separate blog if it comes out later.

As is my habit, I'm up inordinately early, having my coffee and eating a banana.  Around seven I'll wander up the street and pick up The Times at out local bodega.  They probably don't call them 'bodegas' here in LA but that's what they're called in NY so I still do.

In the first few years of my living in NYC I had a place for awhile up in Washington Park, way uptown on the west side of Manhattan.  A little ratty apartment on 172nd street.  It was above Harlem and below the Bronx in an isolated little area full of old Jews and European transplants from the fifties.  One morning, shortly after moving there, I walked to the little bodega on the corner to get bagels and coffee.  As I waited behind an older woman to pay for my stuff, I noticed, as she paid for her stuff, the tattoo on her wrist.  It was a concentration camp tattoo.  Numbers in ink etched into her wrist.  I was stunned for a second.  Never seen one in person before or since.  I was so shocked, in fact, that I must have been staring because when she turned around she noticed me.  She looked briefly at her wrist and then back to me and smiled thinly.  I couldn't say anything.  Just stood and stared.  She nodded quickly to acknowledge that what I was seeing was real and walked out.  I still think now and again about that moment twenty four years later.

Shortly thereafter I began reading everything I could get my hands on regarding the holocaust.  Not with any goal in mind, just to get my mind around it.  I still don't think I have fully.

Later, I wrote a one-person play called If This Is A Man based on a book by Primo Levi about his time in a concentration camp as an Italian Jew.  Did it with a theatre, now defunct, called The Kraine Theatre on the lower east side in NY.

Over the years, film and television have tried to capture the images and mindset of the holocaust.  They inevitably fail.  Even our imagination can't conjure up the horrors that took place.  Dante' himself would have been rendered speechless.

When I visited Europe a long time ago I took a tour of Auschwitz.  I shall forever remember the sign above the entrance in German...Arbeit Macht Frei..."Work Sets You Free."  Today I find it incredible that The Salvation Army uses the same catch phrase for their terrible and secret Adult Rehabilitation Centers all across America.  They are not a particularly bright lot, these guys, these "ministers," so I"m sure the irony completely escapes them.

I saw the ovens, the barracks, the "hospital" where the nefarious "experiments" took place.  I have never, and I mean never, been so emotionally overwhelmed.  By the end of the day I was far, far past tears or wailing or anger.  I was simply stunned.

To this day, when things or situations in my own life tend to become unmanageable, I think of that tour.  I try and place myself in that situation, as far as my mind will let me, anyway.  And almost immediately I realize all over again how lucky I am.  How fortunate to have been born too late for it.

My new play, Heavyweights of the Twentieth Century, deals with three separate couples in three different eras.  One of the couples are a young boy and his mother.  The play starts with them waiting to be assembled by the NAZI's for a train to Auschwitz.  The boy is worried about his dog.  Who will take care of it?

Three hours and three acts later, he is experimented on himself in that very room I witnessed in that camp all those years ago.  I have the perfect young actor in mind to play the role if I can get it produced sometime in the next year.  Young Matthew Shane, who was quite possibly the only bright spot in the night of one-acts we recently mounted at NoHo ACE.

The play is a blank stage play, sixteen characters for sixteen actors, a huge canvas, obviously.  I'd like to get it done somewhere decent with good actors, committed and passionate.  We'll see.

Our next door neighbor's rooster (yes, I live in an area of LA full of barnyard animals, it seems)  is starting to crow.  Bits of light may be seen in the sky.  It's already warm and fresh outside.  Another day in a beautiful city blessed with beautiful weather.  What the hell kept me in Chicago, that terrible, dirty, corrupt city in the bible belt for so long?  I don't know.  I didn't know any better, I guess.  But now, ah, now, I do.

See you tomorrow.

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