Tony Kushner’s A Bright Room Called Day looks at the rise of Adolf Hitler from the perspective of seven Germans, a ghost, and the Devil. None of the play’s characters is Jewish, which is one of the first signs that this isn’t a typical Nazi Germany story. Kushner deals with the passive German population more than the villains and victims of the Third Reich.
First presented in a 1985 workshop and first fully produced in 1987, the play featured a contemporary character who interrupted the action to make comparisons between Hitler and Ronald Reagan. Provocative at the time, and probably even less palatable now, these interruptions provide quite an obstacle to contemporary productions. Kushner recommends revising them to “whatever evildoing is prevalent at the time of production.” He correctly assumes that some, or many, evil things are happening at any given time, and his play perpetuates a call for people to pay closer attention.
I never really considered revising Tony Kushner’s words for the Coeurage Theatre production, because the only person qualified to do so is Kushner himself. Instead, we’ve replaced the monologues with choreographed musical interruptions set to songs you’d hear on an indie rock station. The goal is to enforce the play’s use of Weimar-era Germany to provoke questions about here and now, without having someone talk about Edward Snowden, Mohamed Morsi, or the need for Amber Alerts.
This solution has not precluded me from drawing comparisons between the events of World War II and the Holocaust to anything happening now. Without directly addressing contemporary issues, we’re hoping that audiences are inspired to pay close watch to the world of government and politics. North Korea is in severe violation of the UN Genocide Convention, Russia’s “homosexual propaganda” ban is a lot more far- reaching than the law’s name, millions of Syrian refugees live in subhuman conditions, the cost of living in the United States increased by 67% from 1990 to 2010 while the minimum wage rose 21%. What does this have to do with Berlin in 1932? I’ll borrow dialogue from the play:
“We have this event — Germany, Hitler, the Holocaust — which we have made into the standard of absolute Evil — well and good, as standards of Evil go, it’s not bad — but then everyone gets frantic as soon as you try to use the standard, nothing compares, nothing resembles — and the standard becomes unusable…”
When I began work as director of this production, it was challenging for me to compare anything we deal with now to the atrocities of the Holocaust. It’s a tangible obstacle, but an important one to confront. Kushner writes in the production notes, “The play relies on being grounded in emotions to make its points and have its effects.” I’m pleased to say that the play has had its desired effect on me and my cast, increase our awareness of social and political atrocities. We’ve all begun sharing news stories and articles with each other, I’ve added apps to my phone to help me stay in touch with world news while waiting in line for coffee. It’s more gratifying than playing Word Mole.
Most important, the events of the past have become emotionally immediate to us. Much like one of Shakespeare’s history plays, all of the convoluted, dispassionate details of wars and rulers long ago are suddenly all too familiar, relatable on a human level. This is the only way we could really understand the text and recognize its relevance at this or any other time.
A Bright Room Called Day, Lost Studio, 130 S. La Brea Avenue, LA 90036. Opens Saturday. Fri-Sat 8 pm, Sun 7:30 pm. Through September 15. All tickets are ‘Pay What You Want.’ coeurage.secure.force.com/ticket. 323-944-2165.
**All A Bright Room Called Day production photos by Kevin McShane.
Jeremy Lelliott is the founding artistic director of Coeurage Theatre Company, where he last directed William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Also an actor, he has many film, television and stage credits. He started producing theater in LA when he was 15.