Friday, April 22, 2016

Where is Home? Thoughts on "Atomic" during Passover

There's a scene at the beginning of Schindler's List where you see the Shabbos candles lit and burning, then the family fades out of the room, while the candles are left to burn into curls of smoke in an empty and darkened house.  Here one minute, gone the next; families, whole neighborhoods, millions of people disappeared.  The countries that Leo Szilard and his loved ones lived in while still in Europe - Hungary, Germany, England - were all affected by the war, but it was Berlin that he escaped in the nick of time, right under new chancellor Adolf Hitler's nose (this is mentioned in the Atomic song, A Little Fire). His sensing and foretelling the imminent danger - this time for Jews, dissidents, etc. - became a theme in his life.  There's a line that occurs twice from my character, Trude Weiss, "you have an annoying habit of being right" that highlights that ability.  If anything, he certainly had a true scientist's sense of hypothesis, not only for predicting nuclear chain reactions, but politics as well.  He was also able to convince many of his loved ones to escape before the war. Once in the US and working on the Manhattan Project, he moved about the United States for years, sometimes living with Trude, sometimes on his own.  It was something of a nomadic lifestyle, which some might say was not unknown to Jews for centuries. When the Hebrews left Egypt, they were also said to wander for forty years.  Indeed, there are allusions to Moses in Atomic that work both culturally and scientifically.  There was no map in either case, literal or figurative.

I'm guessing they were decidedly not dressed for the Renaissance, though.

Last week, we had the honor of hearing nuclear science history expert - and award-winning teacher - Kathleen Dwyer (set and lighting designer Rob Lippert's wife) share her fascinating knowledge of and passion for atomic physics.  One of the questions director Scott Miller asked was why the Germans had not come up with the bomb themselves.  Her response - and I'm paraphrasing - was something to effect of, "well, they got rid of all the people capable of doing it" - in other words, hoisted on their own petard of persecution.

If you don't mind being thoroughly disgusted, search keywords "Jewish," "scientists," and "Manhattan Project."  I did so innocently (while writing the last blog), and was shocked to see hateful, paranoid garbage from white supremacist group Stormfront pop up among the results.  Not having clicked on it, I could only assume it was being used as some sort of scare-tactic smear akin to The Eternal Jew, one of the nastiest pieces of antisemitic propaganda ever conceived, painting Jews as dangerous and destructive, which is nothing if not ironic.  I was merely searching on the idea that Kathleen hit on - several of the prominent scientists that gave birth to atomic physics were indeed Jewish: Einstein, Szilard, Teller, Oppenheimer, among others.  Indeed, Germany's loss was the allies''s especially stomach-turning that those who would carry the Nazi's hateful legacy would twist that contribution in such a way. 

In the musical, Trude pointedly and defiantly tries to make time to have shabbos in the states, insisting that they can't take it for granted, having seen the effects of growing antisemitism in Europe.  What horror must have been theirs, however - the whole world's, really - upon discovering what the endgame was to rounding up their friends and families back home: an attempt at utterly wiping out a culture from the face of the earth.  In another touching scene in Atomic, Leo and Trude collapse in disbelief at the news, struggling to grasp that the world they knew is gone, and realizing they cannot go home; there's nothing and no one to go home to.  "How can somewhere that's home when you're in it/feel so empty and cold the next minute?" and "How could we know?"  are among the questions they ask.  There are no answers.  The Holocaust stands out in history as grim and horrific proof that humans can, and will, do unspeakable things to whole entire populations of people in the name of fear and hatred disguised as nationalism.  May we never forget that.

Four glasses of wine at least?  Let's do this.

Tonight is Passover, and I have the honor of celebrating at a seder given by my boyfriend's family.  As I might have mentioned in previous blogs, I was born and raised Baptist, so seder isn't something I was brought up with, but I'd like to think I'm doing okay.  Heck, I even eat the gefilte fish!  That's big for a gentile. Still, more than just the food, I enjoy hearing the story and the tradition that's thousands of years old.   A colleague of my mother's while she taught French and Spanish at Ladue High School, one of the "tribe" himself, once explained to her that all Jewish holidays seem to follow a pattern: "they tried to kill us, but we're still here...let's eat."  Passover in a post-Holocaust world reminds us that while many - like Szilard and Weiss - were delivered from harm and obliged to wander, that so many others had their homes, their possessions, their legacies, their very lives erased.  So today, we can still celebrate the fact that great minds like Szilard's survived to make their mark. Chag Sameach (Happy holiday)!

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Take a breath, close your eyes: starting "Atomic"

We began Atomic rehearsals last night. Whenever I begin a new project, I can never shake the nerves for the first few rehearsals. I've sung for New Line before, but only in the ensemble - which was unforgettable and amazing - for Jerry Springer: The Opera  and Bonnie and Clyde, but now I find myself in a larger and more complex role.  In the next few weeks, it's my job to give voice to a real person, one who gave voice to her husband and partner as well.

Trude with Leo (University of California San Diego)
That's a big honor for any actor, for certain.  Gertrud Weiss Szilard was a physician and researcher, a person who understood and respected science, and along with her partner, was genuinely trying to wrap her mind around the enormous implications - both extraordinary and very, very dangerous - of atomic physics. In the musical, she's often depicted as an educated twist on the neglected and even nagging wife, but she's also a support, part of Leo Szilard's conscience, and what in Yiddish is known as a noodge. (By the way, isn't Yiddish amazing)?

Speaking of all things Jewish, I'll be blogging more later about the singular experience of Jewish expatriates (especially scientists) later on in the rehearsal process, and about Trude's Jewish identity during and in the wake of World War II and the Holocaust.  Jewish culture is touched on more than a few times in this musical - most obviously their horror at what was happening back home.

Atomic physics cannot have had a greater impact on our 20th and 21st century imagination and politics.  I think it's important to remember that at the heart of this incredible realization that we could bring about the end of civilization in just a few moments were real human souls, ones that we should celebrate and have gratitude for.  More than just a scientific visionary, Szilard was gifted with a real humanity that saw the political and moral ramifications of unleashing their discovery on the world.  He was also an incredibly brave man.  For her part, Trude honored that bravery.  I'm eager to get into that and explore with this phenomenal cast and crew.  Let's sing about science!