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Why We Laugh proves humor survives, even in the Holocaust

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You could argue that one of the strongest survival techniques that human beings possess is the ability to find humor even in the most devastating of circumstances. Through war, famine, oppression, and disaster, hope springs through laughter. Perhaps that’s why, during the Holocaust of World War II, Jews detained in the concentration camp Terezín, in the former Czechoslovakia, passed the time by creating cabaret performances filled with music, dancing, and humorous skits. 

Why We Laugh, by Kira Obolensky, takes an original cabaret created by a group of detained Jewish prisoners and adapts it for a modern English-speaking audience.  The new adaptation came out of the work of Dr. Lisa Peschel, who had for years been researching the role of theater during the Holocaust.

“One particular cabaret was called Laugh with Us, and [Peschel] found it remarkable,” Obolensky says. “It changed the direction of her scholarship.” Dr. Peschel wanted to find a playwright who could make a literal translation of the cabaret, which required a lot of footnotes, and find the humor in it, a lot of which had been lost in translation.

Working with Dr. Peschel’s translation and dramaturgy, Obolensky found a point of entry into the work through a character based on Peschel herself. A scholar character begins the play by readying some remarks about discovering the cabaret. That framing helps provide context for the work, which was performed at the time as a survival mechanism.

When Felix Porges, Vítzslav Horpatzky, Pavel Weisskopf, and Pavel Stránský originally created the cabaret in 1944, they didn’t know about the death camps, as Terezín technically wasn’t serving that purpose (though many did die).

“The premise of it is that the people who are in it have acts that they are trying to imagine themselves doing in the future after the war,” Obolensky says. “And here we are trying to imagine them in the past.” Much of the script answers the questions “how do you imagine the future and how do you imagine the past?” 

Julie Kurtz as the Scholar

Julie Kurtz as the Scholar

Why We Laugh premiered at Terazín in 2011 as part of an International Festival in Prague, the same garret where it was performed originally. The audience was made up of Holocaust survivors and their heirs, including some of the original cabaret performers.

“It was amazing and terrifying and incredible,” Obolensky says. “There’s lots of things that make playwrights nervous. Waiting to see how they would meet this play was the most nervous I’ve ever been,” she says. Suffice to say, there were tears and laughter. “The Czech people said to us, 'Wow, we are surprised and a little bit embarrassed that it took Americans to take on this important bit of history.'”

The cabaret includes songs that have been re-arranged by composer Craig Harris. There’s also dance and comic acts, with characters based on some of the real survivor’s stories that provide a through-line.

IF YOU GO:

Why We Laugh's North American Premiere

Presented by Fortune’s Fool Theatre

Open Eye Figure Theater

506 E. 24th St., Minneapolis

8 p.m. September 12, 17-19, and 24-26; 2 p.m. September 13, 20, and 27

$20; $15 for seniors, students, and Fringe button holders

September 17 and 24 are pay-what-you-can performances