EIGHTEEN CHARACTERS; ONE ACTOR; COMEDY; THE HOLOCAUST — an unlikely mix. Yet Laura Zam tackles all of these with humor and grace in her one-woman play, “Collaterally Damaged.”

The nonfiction performance focuses on the life of Zam’s mother under the shadow of Nazism. It traces her travails as she is deported from towns throughout Poland, enslaved in Auschwitz and forced to march into Germany.

As Zam puts it, the Holocaust “is this seminal story that’s supposed to have taught us that we can’t have these kinds of crimes against humanity, and yet we have [them],” as evidenced in Darfur. “‘Never again’ doesn’t really make sense.”

In the narrative (and in life), Zam goes back to Poland to follow her mother’s path. She ends up traveling with an ex-boyfriend videographer, interviewing people about war, fighting with the ex, visiting Auschwitz and trying to find the contemporary relevance of the Holocaust.

It’s an enthralling story that’s all true, and even — improbably — funny. “It’s very heavy material,” she says, but she takes pains to deliver it in an “almost stand-up” way: “I don’t go into many graphic details.”

The Holocaust is a difficult subject, of course, and “Collaterally Damaged” treads lightly. “It’s not something I would want to dramatize,” she says, “I’ll leave that to Steven Spielberg.”

But that’s not to imply that Zam avoids the hard stuff. “We talk a lot about stopping atrocities by figuring out what we should do to the perpetrators,” she says, “but we don’t talk about [the victims]. Where does … retaliation fit into their world? … Violence begets violence.”

Zam’s mother was ultimately liberated by British soldiers, and she ends up tenderly berating her daughter about the hardships she missed out on. “Eighteen buttons I had to sew on those Nazi uniforms, every day! Eighteen buttons!”

At one point in the play, Zam visits Auschwitz: “I go there and it’s like a cemetery to me, very somber, and on the bus, going from Auschwitz-1 to Auschwitz-2, the bus driver has the radio on, and it’s playing this bad ’80s music…. On the way going, it’s Cranberries; on the way back, it’s Cher.”

But she handles these irritations with sophistication, saying, “I don’t sermonize in the play.”

In a year of performing “Collaterally Damaged” throughout Washington, Zam realized her audiences might be left feeling powerless by the play. “I ask questions and don’t really provide answers,” she says. “People don’t know what to do; people just feel really bad.”

So the playwright now offers inspiration for action by following the performances with a discussion of the plight of Burundi, one of the world’s poorest countries. It’s also adjacent to the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Rwanda — and Burundi’s porous borders allowed Rwanda’s genocidal war to spill over into it twice.

Sunday’s performance at Busboys & Poets directly benefits the charity “Books for Burundi.”

» Busboys & Poets, 2021 14th St. NW; Sun., 7:30 p.m., $20 suggested donation; 202-387-7638. (U St.-Cardozo)

Written by Express’ Chris Combs
Photo by Jack Pedota