As the lights dim in Gonda Theater, an elderly actor playing the role of Jan Karski slowly emerges and takes his trademark place on a black bench at the center of the stage. This image of Professor Karski sitting on a bench is not a new sight. In fact, Georgetown students may already be familiar with the bronze statue version of Karski perched just outside of White-Gravenor.
“Remembering This: Walking with Jan Karksi,” a staged reading on Dec. 9, was composed of nine talented actors and actresses who depicted the story of the famous Georgetown professor. Karski’s experiences and work during the Second World War have become an integral part of remembering and acknowledging the suffering of the Polish Jews.
The script, written and adapted by Davis Center for the Performing Arts Artistic Director Derek Goldman and Clark Young (COL ’09), was based on Karski’s own book entitled “Story of a Secret State: My Report to the World” in conjunction with Georgetown University Press and the Claude Lanzmann Shoah Collection from the U.S. Holocaust Museum.
The play begins with eager Georgetown students badgering Karski (David Strathairn) with questions. They shout inquiries about the war, his time spent in the Polish underground, and his meeting with President Roosevelt among other things; however, Karski is reluctant to give answers, insisting over and over again that he “[doesn’t] go back” into his memory. Eventually, with a bit more prodding Karski begins to slowly and methodically tell his famous tale.
The story of Jan Karski is at once fascinating and disturbing. A man of great knowledge and intellect, Karski played an important role not only in the preservation of Poland and specifically the Jewish population there, but also as a hero of the Second World War itself. He visited a Jewish ghetto and prison camp and was able to set aside his own feelings of horror, sorrow and disgust in order to report to the world the cry for help from the Polish Jews. The Academy Award-nominated Strathairn handles the character well with his careful pauses for reflection, and his hesitation when speaking about the things he has seen is very raw and believable. The emotions of fear, guilt, shame, humiliation and, at times, denial expressed by Strathairn complement the discussion of a period considered to be among the most inhumane in history.
The plot of the story is as sensitive a subject as the Holocaust itself. Karski endured torture at the hand of the Soviet Red Army and the Gestapo as a prisoner of war, and then after a narrow escape he joined the Polish underground because of his intellectual abilities and loyalty to Poland. The gravity of the situation and the story itself is not lost on the rest of the impressive cast (mostly from D.C. and New York; many have acted in Broadway performances). They moved seamlessly through the stream-of-consciousness reading, switching back and forth between roles in both the past and present with fluid ease.
This constant oscillation between the past and the present day did create a bit of confusion as to what lines were part of which time period and what role each actor was playing in that particular moment. However, the actors succeeded in bringing to life the parts of the reading that would usually have to be imagined by the audience. The juxtaposition of Karski’s former and present self and the dramatic portrayals of the suffering of prisoners of war is captured and pieced together by this flip-flopping style.
“Remember This: Walking With Jan Karski,” presented by the Laboratory for Global Performance and Politics, made its debut April 24, at the Gonda Theatre, to commemorate the centennial of Karski’s birth. Strathairn and Goldman travelled to Warsaw, Poland to reprise the performance in late October, and the show was presented for the first time in New York on Dec. 11.
Overall, this reading was extremely moving, and while Karski’s story itself is without a doubt the most impressive aspect of the show, the actors were a close second. Goldman mentioned in his opening remarks that the cast had only had about a week to rehearse. While at times that small timeframe rears its head in the form of a few errant, fumbled lines or over-reliance on the thick black binders, overall, the acting was superb.
The unique approach to this reading would satisfy anyone interested in firsthand experiences of the Second World War or simply a fascinating professor who once graced the halls of Georgetown itself. In the words of Goldman himself, this story “ripples in the most immediate ways to this day.”