19 January, 2024

The Eleventh Classmate

Originally published by Broadway World on 19 Jan, 2024

Stephen Ochsner as Jacob Katz

Last spring, I came on board to participate in a casual reading of Our Class by Tadeuz Słobodzianek. Political polarization, disinformation, families and friendships in crisis over ideologies were front and center of all our minds that day:

How could ten ordinary classmates growing up through extraordinary times make such horrific choices, respond to traumatic events in such barbaric ways, inspired by so much fear and so little empathy?

The answers might be difficult to comprehend, but it is not hard to find contemporary evidence— it exists right before use every day. In the comments sections. In our direct messages. Across tense dinner tables. And screamed violently at parallel protests. It seems the global population have one thing in common for certain: we are all terrified.
And in our fear, we have all become more rigid, more intolerant;
    and far less capable of compassion, nuance and meaningful listening.
In that fear, is where our friendships, communities and wider societies begin to break down.

It feels virtually impossible to hold more than one truth these days, but it’s what I feel compelled to do. There’s the visceral: the outrage, the grief, the loss, the fear, the violence, the deaths, the horror. There’s the global proliferation of hatred from every angle. And there’s the relational: the how could yous and the how could you nots. Every day online and in the street I feel the pain going septic behind everyone’s rage.

In Our Class — ten Polish classmates — five Jewish, and five Catholic — grow up as friends and neighbors, then turn on one another with unutterable brutality; in traumatic, life and death consequences.  It is inspired by the real life events surrounding a 1941 pogrom in a small Polish village of Jedwabne.  

It is staggering.  Shocking. Stomach-churningly timely. We follow the lives of the classmates from the age of 5 through eight decades of the 20th century. It examines the nature of hate, and how we—as human creatures— have the potential for both brutality and love.

Yes, the play hits differently than it did last spring. Yes.


    From the very beginning our visionary (Ukrainian-born and Jewish) director Igor Golyak told us what his most important concept was: it had nothing to do with visual imagery, playing-style or group dynamics. It was the central idea that we must not approach this play as a story that happened “back THEN, far away from here to and by people that are nothing like me.” We had to do everything in our power to center our own personal morality and humanity into the exploration of this play to make sure it was not a PAST-TENSE play. It was a PRESENT-TENSE play.
    Our Class is not history, it is our present and our future.

    We had to be courageous enough to reckon with that within ourselves.
By making friends with confrontational thoughts.
Rather than asking ourselves
    “how could THEY?”
we were forcing ourselves into twisting our own psychology into an excruciating moral question mark:  
    “How might I? What would it take for me to behave in this way?”
By acknowledging that by the very nature of being human we have the capacity for great cruelty, we don’t distance ourselves from the perpetrators, we acknowledge that at any moment, we might very well become them, were the circumstances “just right” enough to push us over the edge of our own moral compass.
    It is—without exception— the most challenging, fully enacted moral exercise of my career.

Myself as Rachelka turned Marianna

This brings me to an interesting question on the lips of so many these days: how many more stories of oppressed peoples’ trauma (in this instance Jewish trauma) do we need to bear witness to? Haven’t we been through enough? How many times can we hear and see these stories played out and still not experience social change in a wider sense?

Fair questions. And I don’t have neat answers. What I can provide is an idea central to the import of Our Class: the featuring of the perpetrators.

Last week while speaking with a journalist, we discussed the rule in journalism that has become a kind of law— when an act of violence is carried out, do not feature the perpetrators, focus on the victims and their memory. Wise indeed in journalism— where we (at least we used to) get our neutral facts and information. No need to create cult heroes out of perpetrators of violence.

But art is a different matter. We look to artists to meet different needs within society— we “hold the mirror up to nature” and beckon audiences to examine themselves. More than just culture preservers, historians, or beauty-makers— artists have been crucial to social change, catharsis  and personal examination since the dawn of the art form in Ancient Greece. We need art in order to grow as a collective.

For the majority of the 20th century Holocaust art largely followed the focus on victims just as journalists did— it was almost a moral imperative as the last survivors were reaching the ends of their lives. Preserving the crucial stories of victims was the very definition of our collective sobriety toward hatred. It solidified a restored humanity in Europe and around the globe.

But by framing the Holocaust as a mystifying, totally incomprehensible evil to be exacted by “animals” we distance ourselves from the atrocities as impossible to see within ourselves. To view the events and the thinking that got us there, as— to quote Elie Wiesel—“the ultimate event, the ultimate mystery, never to be comprehended or transmitted,” we shield our consciousness from the absolute certainty of our own human capacity for evil.

Gus Birney as Dora

Our Class is no such piece of avoidance or moral circumvention.

Through Słobodzianek’s use of direct address, the audience is implicated— the characters speak not just to one another, but to the audience as the “11th classmate” asking over and over again the haunting question:

    “What could I do?”

Perhaps Słobodzianek is indeed asking us:
    What could we do?
    What are we doing?
    What will and might we do?
And perhaps most chilling of all:
    who are we to judge these characters if we never dare to fully observe ourselves?

That is what distinguishes this piece from others.


Every day I grapple with fear of forgetting. With the fact that I am two generations removed from the events of Our Class (and so many other stories I’ve had the privilege to tell on stage and page). I was not alive during the war — and these memories do not belong to me.

When people continually try to deny the reality of the Holocaust, being a dramatic story-teller complicates matters. These events truly did happen, and perhaps the fear is that if one makes it fiction, people will think it isn’t true.

But we have learned that the documents alone are not enough. A 2022 U.S. survey by the Anti-Defamation League found “widespread belief in anti-Jewish tropes, at rates unseen for decades.” In the first two months of 2023, attacks on U.S. synagogues increased 71 percent.

Second- and third- and soon-to-be-fourth generation storytellers from all genres — as well as those who are not direct descendants — attempt to combat this evaporation.

“Never forgetting” is a trope if it is not followed by meaningful action. And it seems that action is changing and shifting— as those charged with remembering inherit a different—but in many ways identical—world.

Despite challenging subject matter, Igor Golyak’s production features whimsy, music, laughter and even joy. It features 10 incredible performances by beautiful actors. It includes designers that are each the absolute top of their chosen art form— all coming together to tell this story with breathtaking beauty.

As my character Rachelka says:

“We all have our destiny. Our b’shet.”

Perhaps mine—at least in this era of my life— is a kind of theatrical never-forgetting.
We’ll see.


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