Mark Krawczyk’s character in Theater J’s “Our Class” is “effectively the leader of a massacre perpetrated on the Jews by a bunch of Polish Catholics in the play,” the actor says.
“Our Class,” which spans 80 years, follows five Catholic and five Jewish classmates in Poland and the rising wartime violence that consumes their lives. The play is based on true events that occurred in Jedwabne, Poland.
“As an actor, one of the first things you do is try to defend your character,” Krawczyk said. “I find it difficult to even vaguely defend his actions because they’re not defendable. It’s madness. I think he’s a good man who really goes drastically, drastically astray.”
Both of Krawczyk’s parents were born and raised in Poland; Krawczyk, who is Catholic, declared dual citizenship with the country a couple of years ago. During World War II, his grandmother was forced to work in a Nazi agricultural camp, a piece of family history that wasn’t revealed to Krawczyk until two years after his grandmother died, in 2005, when an envelope came in the mail from the German Forced Labor Compensation Program office.
After the war, Krawczyk’s grandmother heard that the German government was looking to compensate people who had been forced into labor camps for the Nazis. She spent much of Krawczyk’s life talking about how she was owed money, but he never knew what she meant.
That is, until he saw what was in this envelope: a check for $199. “And 90 some-odd cents,” he added. His father took one look at the check, dropped it and said, “It would have been better if they’d never sent it at all.” For all that she’d been through, Krawczyk’s grandmother was expecting significantly more for her suffering.
“It’s tough to talk about,” Krawczyk said. “A friend of mine in Poland once said to me, [when] we were talking about our family histories in the war, ‘Everyone’s got that story here.’ And that initially draws me to [this play]. My family is like many other Polish families: No one ever talks about that era. . . . Whether it be that they suffered through something, or made people suffer through something.
“I was drawn to [‘Our Class’] because, I don’t know, I always go to these Slavic projects when they come up. Because I think I’ll learn something about myself.”
Director Derek Goldman already had an impressive level of expertise when he signed on to “Our Class” — he worked as a Holocaust educator for years and wrote a play on the subject. But because “this play is so specifically about a place, ghosts, memory, in a really particular cultural context,” he said, “I just had a really strong sense that I needed to go there.”
He spent a week in Poland, where he met with playwright Tadeusz Słobodzianek at his theater in Warsaw, then traveled to Edinburgh to speak with the woman who first translated “Our Class” from Polish to English.
“This play — the way it deals with an intimate kind of brutality, neighbors killing neighbors — it was a sort of harrowing, human side of things that really was very different and shockingly new for me, of having to reckon with some of this history,” Goldman said. “It’s not the kind of play you ever feel fully prepared for. But I came back feeling much more steeped in the world of the play.”
“I think one of the things the play does that’s really, really powerful and challenging is that there’s no sense of ‘the noble hero or heroine’ at the center, navigating the evil forces,” Goldman said. “It totally defies the notion of dividing along the axes of perpetrator, bystander and victim. All of these people are all of those things.”
Through Nov. 4, 1529 16th St. NW. washingtondcjcc.org. 202-518-9400.
After the success of last year’s “Hellspawn,” Active Cultures Theater is going ghost-themed again on another trio of locally written and focused plays. This year’s offering is “Hellspawn II: Black Aggie Speaks.”
“It’s a really complex legend,” Active Cultures Artistic Director Mary Resing warns. There is a statue known as “Black Aggie,” a replica of the statue popularly called “Grief” that marks the Adams Memorial in Rock Creek Cemetery.
Black Aggie is haunted.
How haunted is haunted? “It supposedly killed people,” Resing said.
“It also became the site of hazing rituals for fraternities,” said Resing, and apparently some of these ill-fated pledges were strangled or choked by Black Aggie.
The cemetery, as you can imagine, wasn’t so hot on having this evil hunk of stone terrifying and possibly killing visitors. Officials tried passing it off to the Smithsonian, but the Smithsonian didn’t want it. (Maybe officials there were superstitious, or perhaps the Smithsonian just isn’t interested in bad copies of famous statues.) Black Aggie finally settled down in the courtyard of a federal district court building in Lafayette Square, across the street from the White House.
“It’s supposedly wreaking havoc now on the federal court system,” said Resing, which, depending on your politics, kind of explains a lot.
Each of the three plays in “Hellspawn II” has a connection to the myth. “Faceless,” written by Resing, is a Gothic ghost story set inside the Hay-Adams hotel during a snowstorm. (“Grief,” that statue of which Black Aggie is a rip-off, sits atop the grave of Marian “Clover” Adams, the “Adams” in “Hay-Adams.”)
“Grief,” written by Michael John Garces, is a solo piece about the spirits trapped inside the titular statue in Rock Creek Cemetery. The Washington Post’s Alexandra Petri wrote the third play, “What Fresh Hell,” a comedy about drunk fraternity boys and a hazing ritual held at Black Aggie.
Audience members who saw 2011’s “Hellspawn” can expect something a little more eerie. “Last year we were focusing on horror, and honestly that was really creepy to work on,” Resing said. “This year it’s more ghostly, it’s haunting. . . . We’re still trying to be spooky and scary, but in a different way.”
Thursday through Nov. 4, Riverdale Park Town Center, 4650 Queensbury Rd., Riverdale Park. activecultures.org. 301-526-9921.