2016-03-24 / Around Town

‘Any Time is the Right Time to Do This Play’

By James Merolla

Co-directors Laurette Mathers and Mary Wright, left, listen to lines during a recent rehearsal. (Photo by James Merolla) Co-directors Laurette Mathers and Mary Wright, left, listen to lines during a recent rehearsal. (Photo by James Merolla) “A rat slept in my shoe … transport into the new ghetto, into the unknown. 1,500 children will arrive tonight. They are from Poland … None of the children can speak Czech. We don’t know if they are Jewish or Polish or what? They look awful … they all have tiny faces and old bodies … they all have such frightened eyes …”

From a poetic heart of darkness, the Jamestown Community Theatre will present “I Never Saw Another Butterfly” by Celeste Raspanti, April 1-3. The play is based on Raspanti’s book by the same name, which is comprised of poems and drawings created by Jewish children between 1942 and 1945 while they were interned at Terezín.

Terezín was a “stopping-off place” as the Nazis transported thousands on their way to the gas chambers at Auschwitz. The play follows one of the few survivors of Terezín, a girl named Raja, and tells an “imaginative creation” of her story, based on those poems, diaries, and drawings that were found after the liberation.

“I am not yet finished with being a Jew! Today, they came to the school … they gave us one hour to clear away everything … one hour! They are relocating the boundaries, 12 blocks on either side … all the necessities of life are gone … all the simple pleasures of life.”

The play is searing theater, and not for everyone, but remains a dream work for co-director Mary Wright. In the decade that she has put on shows on Conanicut Island, she has always wanted to produce Raspanti’s work.

“You are representing a real person who lived and died,” Wright tells a group of eight child actors of the gravity of their characters’ lives. Wright will also perform in the powerful family scenes as Raja’s mother.

“Butterflies don’t live in the ghetto … but while we live, we are together …”

Gulag images are sprinkled with poetry in counterpoint.

“I’d like to go home again … everything is so strange here … we are not allowed to leave the barracks … we sleep in bunks … the garrets scream with light for long, long hours …”

“Closer, get closer. Don’t forget you are on a train,” Wright tells her young actors in imagining cramped quarters.

“I have loved this play ever since I saw excerpts from it over a decade ago,” Wright says. “It is a gem that in its brevity demonstrates so much sensitivity, honesty, and depth of emotion. It is important for all ages today to view what was real, and not what some are now trying to declare as much less than it was.”

Wright adds that “computer games that are easily available show war games and murder at the press of a key. Children score points for murder.

“Hey, turn on the TV, watch a debate; see grown-ups humiliating one another or a rally that expresses hatred. I think any time is the right time to do this play. Empathy seems to be missing a lot. There’s too much lashing out and fighting rather than understanding.”

Wright and co-director Laurette Mathers, who also plays the adult Raja, hopes audiences will leave thinking this is not fiction. It was, and in some countries, still is, reality. “I hope a lot of questions come up. I hope families have discussions,” says Wright.

The directors have had such discussions at each rehearsal with the actors. Adults and kids have together talked about the history of the period and the children know they are recreating real events.

“I don’t think anyone can really relate to the atrocities unless they were there, but at least an idea has been placed in the children’s minds that humans can be brutal under sinister circumstances,” says Wright. “Actually, I have never before worked with children who have become so patient and understanding during rehearsals. I wonder if the tone of the play has created this mood.”

TO GO

“I Never Saw Another Butterfly” WHEN: Friday and Saturday, April 1&2 at 7 p.m., and Sunday, April 3 at 3 p.m. WHERE: Jamestown Arts Center TICKETS: $12 at the door

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