Portraying a woman who relives her struggles through the journey of the Holocaust has caused Janine DeMichele to have a deeper appreciation for those who endured the horrors of the Nazi regime.
"Everyone has heard about the Holocaust and knows about the concentration camps," said DeMichele, a Harlem High School senior who portrays Erna Holtberg in I Can Cry next week at the Jabez S. Hardin Performing Arts Center. "But portraying Erna really has given me another outlook.
"By putting myself in her shoes, it really opened my eyes to the unspeakable horrors that they had to go through, and it was almost like I was there myself.''
In I Can Cry, scheduled for a 7:30 p.m. curtain call Friday and Saturday, the story of Ester, now 70, is told through her younger self, Erna.
As the older Ester recalls her past, Erna is experiencing it from her sheltered childhood in Krakow through labor, concentration and death camps, freezing cattle cars, transports and death marches to her ultimate liberation.
"Her family is taken away, she is beaten, starved and dehumanized, but she doesn't lose hope and strength," Harlem High drama teacher Roy Lewis said of Ester. "Together they recall and experience six years of horror, strength, fear, love and friendship to a cathartic, joyful end."
Tickets for the productions cost $10, with a meet-and-greet reception with the playwright, Miri Ben-Shalom, and the cast before Friday's performance. Ben-Shalom will visit Harlem High, and a reception will be held in her honor the evening of the performance, where she will attend the show.
The reception is being sponsored by the Sawdust Performing Arts Foundation, whose goal is to improve performing arts facilities at Harlem High and in the community. One of the first goals of the foundation, which was formed in 2006 under the direction of Harlem High alumnae Amy Dorril and Julie Pokrzywinski, is to double the drama scholarships offered. Currently, the school awards three $500 scholarships. The foundation also wants to provide after-school programs at elementary schools and for at-risk students.
I Can Cry was chosen as this year's performance after Lewis saw a show in Edinburgh, Scotland, at the Fringe Festival in 2004 when an entourage of students from the school performed the Rodgers and Hart musical Babes in Arms.
"It is a very moving piece of theater," Lewis said. "I have been working with Miri over the past two years to secure the rights to perform the piece. It is an incredible opportunity for our students to meet her. We are very excited."
Robin Lyles said her portrayal of Ester has proved to her that all stories of the Holocaust need to be told.
"In America today, we tend to desensitize ourselves to the fact the Holocaust was not just numbers, but people," the Harlem High senior said. "Playing Ester has enabled me to see that each person has a story that needs to be told.''
Lewis said his hope is that the community will support the performance.
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