By the time you read this, Susan Cernyak-Spatz’ distinctive voice may be stilled.
At 97, after a stroke left her bedridden, she has been communicating with the world through her daughters, Jackie and Wendy Fishman. Her keen, tart, tolerate-no-fools tongue, its German-Austrian accent tinted by a slight drawl after five decades in the South, can just about whisper.
Now, for the first time, others must speak on her behalf. Playwright Charles LaBorde will do so in “Protective Custody: Prisoner 34042,” a world premiere that opens Three Bone Theatre’s 2019-2020 season Nov. 1 at Spirit Square.
Cernyak-Spatz has shared her narrative with Charlotteans for a long time. She’s still listed on the UNC Charlotte faculty as a professor emerita in the department of language and culture studies, where she worked on the first Holocaust studies program. She has addressed students, from elementary schools to Queens University’s Stan Greenspon Center for Peace and Social Justice, where Jackie Fishman is an education consultant.
Her tale’s a stunner. Teenaged Susan and her family fled Vienna in 1938, leaving their possessions behind after Adolf Hitler rolled in. They settled in Czechoslovakia but were trapped when Hitler conquered that country. Her father escaped to Belgium via Poland, but her mother refused to flee until her lover could also escape. The mother, lover and Susan went to the Theresienstadt camp in 1942, and the older two were sent to their deaths at Auschwitz.
Susan was eventually transferred to Birkenau, the adjunct camp to Auschwitz. She “arrived in Hell,” as her memoir put it, on Jan. 1, 1943. LaBorde, who adapted the book she wrote with Joel Shatzky, says “the creation of a new person started that day” – one tough and canny enough to stay alive until the Allied liberation in 1945.
His play, which takes its title from her book, stops just as the freed Susan rings her father’s doorbell in Brussels. (The title refers to the designation applied by the Nazis: They were giving the Jews “protective custody” against enemies, not imprisoning them.) We don’t see her war-bride marriage to an American soldier, life in his stultifying Midwestern town with a tyrannical father-in-law, freedom from that unhappy union, remarriage and resettlement in Charlotte.
“Almost all Holocaust survivors who came to this country didn’t share their stories at first with American Jews,” says Wendy Fishman, the youngest of Cernyak-Spatz’ three children. “She was a European intellectual from a wealthy family who got thrown into the American Midwest, and she ended up being silent there through 20 years of misery. Getting German war reparations (in the 1960s) allowed her to go to Southwest Missouri State College. Doing that and seeing a psychiatrist changed her life.
“As I grew up, there was not a lot of discussion about (her war experiences); I didn’t know a lot of the details until I read her book. Once she found her voice and used her story to teach, it freed her in some ways. She’s grateful that her story is being carried on.”
LaBorde and director Dennis Delamar have worked on this project since spring 2017, but it had floated around Delamar’s brain for 11 years before that.
He and the keen-witted Cernyak-Spatz struck up a friendship in the 1980s, when both performed at Theatre Charlotte. “I appreciated her commentary after any play I was in,” he says. “She was always honest.”
From memoir to play
In 2006, he directed “I Am My Own Wife,” a one-person play about a German antiquarian who survived Nazi and Communist regimes in East Berlin as a transgender woman. He wondered then what would happen if someone told Cernyak-Spatz’ story in a similar format. The idea moved to his back burner, until Delamar heard another Holocaust survivor speak at the opening of the Greenspon Center three years ago.
Afterward, he and Jackie Fishman brainstormed on a bench outside. Her mom had written the “Protective Custody” memoir in 2005 and read it on tape. She’d been interviewed for the documentary “Surviving Birkenau – The Dr. Susan Spatz Story.” (Levine Jewish Community Center will show that film Oct. 26.) Why not dramatize her life, too?
They enlisted LaBorde but never informed Jackie’s mother until after a draft was finished. Over lunch at Café Monte, LaBorde recalls, they broke the news and received her blessing: Cernyak-Spatz said, for one of the few times in her life, “I’m speechless.” They also got a boost from Robin Tynes-Miller, founding artistic director of Three Bone.
How to tell it
“We’re so small that this was a big surprise,” Tynes-Miller says. “We were flattered to be asked, but we do only four shows a year, and the idea of committing one to a piece that hadn’t been written was daunting. It was a big conversation for us to have.
“We tell the kinds of stories that are underrepresented in Charlotte, typically contemporary stories that are not set in the past. But because this is so relevant, with the rise of neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups across the globe, we said yes. It’s a Holocaust story, but it’s also a story…about ingredients in a culture that allow that to happen.” (Each show, Three Bone partners with a group doing socially useful work; this time, it chose the Greenspon Center.)
LaBorde jettisoned the idea of a one-person show early in the process, structuring it instead as a series of encounters between Susan and other, nearly silent characters over a period of years. He and Delamar decided the key to continuity was to reveal changes in place and mood through costumes and enlisted Magda Guichard, known for inventive work at Children’s Theatre of Charlotte, to make that happen.
They cast Paula Baldwin without an audition to play all the secondary roles and another local veteran, Nicia Carla, to play Susan. Then came the blow: Carla had to withdraw this summer for personal reasons. Delamar and LaBorde scrambled, holding auditions in a parking lot near the airport outside Three Bone’s office.
“Leslie Giles nailed it,” Delamar recalls. “She played to that big empty space as if she were playing to the world. She had gone online to watch Susan – she looks a little like her – and we didn’t look any farther.”
‘Why we need to do this’
Talli Dippold, the Greenspon’s associate director, gave cast and crew what Delamar calls a “Holocaust 101” briefing. Giles plunged ahead, memorizing nearly 90 minutes of dialogue that LaBorde tweaked as rehearsals progressed. LaBorde, whose Dramatists Guild contract gives him the right to attend rehearsals, stayed away for fear of making Giles uncomfortable.
He has actually created two versions of the play: A shorter, sanitized one suitable for students, and the longer one on view at Duke Energy Theater. Tynes half-jokingly says “Making audiences uncomfortable is our specialty,” and LaBorde will do that.
“She was so frank about things: her promiscuity, getting raped, a guy throwing her a piece of sausage (for sex) and then leaving her with the clap,” he says. “I kept that in.”
Though LaBorde didn’t seek Cernyak-Spatz’ approval for the script – nor did she ask for it – Delamar shared it with her, requesting suggestions. He continually inquired about physical details: What did a certain scarf look like, and what color was the bowl she used at the camp? He taped her pronunciations of key words for the cast and had her sing the number she performed alongside an SS officer who played the accordion. (It was “Star Dust.”)
The creators knew they had a real – and necessary – piece of theater when they gave a reading in December 2018 at the Greenspon Center. Cernyak-Spatz attended and, Delamar says, was pleased. But six weeks earlier, a man screaming anti-Semitic slurs had murdered 11 people at a Pittsburgh synagogue, and Queens posted guards outside the doors.
“I sat there reading stage directions and looking at four security people put there because of all these shootings and bombings,” he says. “And I thought, ‘This is why we need to do this play.’”
“Protective Custody: Prisoner 34042”
When: 8 p.m. Nov. 1-3 and 7-9.
Where: Duke Energy Theater, Spirit Square, 345 N. College St.
Tickets: $22 in advance, $28 at the door. Discounts for students, teachers, groups of 10 or more.
Details: 704-372-1000 or threebonetheatre.com.
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