July 25, 2024
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The Magic of the Wait–What? Moment: Michelle Kholos Brooks on Jewish Awareness, H*tler’s Tasters, and the Road from Creative Concept to Play

I sit, spellbound, in the small, dimly lit West Side theater where three blonde uber-Aryan, thoroughly indoctrinated teen girls vacillate emotionally between anxiety, frustration, giddiness, relief, and bursts of joy. H*tler’s Tasters, which just finished its New York run, is based on the true story of Hitler’s poison “tasters,” sequestered near his Wolf’s Lair. Despite their Nazi-era timeline, much in Michelle Kholos Brooks’ script suggests that the play’s core of darkness is not far afield from contemporary political realities and hatreds; this is but one reason for its success.

Brooks invests herself heavily in projects that speak to her heart—so much so that H*tler’s Tasters is dedicated to the people of Ukraine. In the Playbill, she references the tragic outcomes of hatred and tyranny, including pogroms that her grandparents fled. I probe about Ukraine, her Jewish background, and its impact on her work.

A Jewish Sensibility

Brooks mentions a proverbial playbook from which tyrants (then Hitler, now Putin, who calls Zelensky a Nazi) repeatedly strategize their moves. She doesn’t know of any relatives killed by Nazis, yet her Ukrainian born grandfather escaped persecution, and amazingly, with his few remaining fingers, typed his memoir. 

She values the centrality of questioning to Judaism: “Why, how, how can this be? It’s a very Jewish trait to observe what’s happening and to confront and question it wherever possible. We know that when people start behaving badly, that generally doesn’t work very well for us and we also know that if it starts with us, it doesn’t stop with us…Jews have a tradition…of compassion because we know what it’s like to be under siege. Once people identify “others” and start “…othering…the rest of us eventually fall,”  she adds.

She hasn’t directly experienced the vulnerability of Jewish communities abroad, but 

when H*tler’s Tasters ran at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, it seemed more accessible to, resonated more deeply with, and elicited more laughs from European audiences than from American ones; Brooks surmises that Europeans’ awareness of history enables them “to have those emotional responses more readily available.” 

Did the precariousness of Jewish existence become more vivid for Brooks through the  writing process? “I think it’s always been there but when you’re concentrating on something for a particular reason, you just seem to see it everywhere… it remains terrifying to me. It hit me when I got a little bit older…” She grew up where there were few Jews, was raised more culturally than religiously Jewish, but celebrated her bat mitzvah. 

“When I came into that realization…some of it came when I had my son (Henry)—that it doesn’t matter what I think I am…even if I decided that I didn’t want to be Jewish anymore or wanted to declare myself something else, it doesn’t matter. If somebody else points their finger and says Jew, you’re considered a Jew…and you’re on the chopping block…and I think you’re always living with that tension…I don’t think there is any way to avoid that…I think that some people feel…that we can be a little insular or a little more tribal in a way… when people start dropping ‘the Jews or the intelligentsia’…a lot of people take it on very easily.”

In elementary school, children repeated things to her they heard from their parents. They didn’t know that it was bad. “They were my friends, and they just went along.” The they just went along she mentions is an historical pattern, a thread woven into H*tler’s Tasters, an unquestioning, silent complicity, with devastating consequences for the Jews. 

I mention the play’s upcoming run in Switzerland, where attitudes towards Jews have ranged from negative to ambivalent. A theater company came to the Fringe, liked, and licensed the show. “That’s optimistic for me,” she adds.  

On H*tler’s Tasters’ Shelf Life and the Challenges of Getting a Play Produced

Brooks hopes for H*tler’s Tasters’ long life, especially as it represents “lots of work by very determined women” who brought the play back to New York, after COVID closed it in LA. “To get a play produced, there need to be a lot of well-intentioned people willing to invest…lots of rules and regulations and someone could not like it from a publication and end it. So many things can happen.”’

So far, “my wildest dreams have been exceeded and I am so enormously moved and proud of these women and the artfulness they have brought to this.” Brooks is not a producer, yet she tries to be as supportive as possible and “…the press has been fantastic.” I inquired about

the dramatic/comic balance she created in writing H*tler’s Tasters. 

Balancing Humor in Darkness and Darkness in Humor

We discuss how scripts fluctuate between these elements–for example, the very dark humor of Mel Brooks, her father-in-law, when he sings about Torquemada in History of the World Part 1. I wonder, when she injects humor into the story’s darkness, how and where she  teases out that balance. 

In the absence of an initial agenda when a play presents itself, “I sort of follow what it needs to be.  “I am a firm believer in humor as a wonderful gateway to open yourself up to other emotions.….I can get a little dark and the research is rough, so I need it and … everybody needs that relief…through that relief, you can hear some of the other pieces with a little more clarity… to not have humor would have been a disservice to those girls.”

More generally, she mentions “… jokes that…came out of the Holocaust, people who told jokes just to keep each other going…I don’t think there is anything more human than a little chuckle sometimes.”

We discuss the irony that for the play’s young women, Hitler “…was a paternalistic figure” for “…a big chunk of their lives.” They lacked  perspective to say, “Hold up! That’s not OK,” but broke ranks at points in the play. “There are moments…ruptures–where the girl(s) start to say, ‘You know, it’s really sad that my friend got taken away and separated from her family.’ That thought gets pushed back down…you’re not allowed to question…The moments where they are questioning are funny because it’s so awful…they’re revealing a truth that they can’t see, and we see they can’t see…”

So why did Brooks choose a seemingly bizarre topic? What research was undertaken?   

Serendipitous: The Wait–What? Moment of Hitler’s Tasters 

In preparation for my interview, I read about Margot Wolk, the tasters’ sole survivor (Russian forces killed the others). (https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-04-04/hitler-food-taster-novel-at-the-wolfs-table-rosella-postorino/10959950). Brooks heard Wolk’s story and experienced a wait–what? moment, where she finds something deep inside her to work out. She knew “that this was my play to write…I wanted it so badly.” She trained as a journalist, so she reviewed Wolk’s interviews, found books about Third Reich fashion and how to behave on Hitler’s birthday, and perused books and AV media bought by her husband, author Max Brooks.

That’s “the beauty of being a playwright and a move away from being a journalist because I can take a story… and I can work it through me and my point of view…the truth is more to me than the facts. It’s about what I feel to be right…and (I need to) figure out why it hit me on such a deep level…Most of the work I do is when I get that wait–what? moment…I feel compelled to spend loads of time on…telling stories of people who are unseen.” 

Brooks admits, “…I have an emotional radar for some stuff. Once you have all the information, I feel as an artist that I do have the responsibility…to frame it though your imagination and your lens so that maybe people are seeing things in a different way. I’ll see something awful and when you engage with a piece of art…you are reminded of the humanity of it and it’s not just information and statistics.” 

Why the asterisk after the H in Hitler, I asked? The production needed to circumvent social media algorithms. The show was booted off Facebook and Instagram for “violating community standards” by saying, “Hitler.” The advantage of the asterisk was “the way it opened up the conversation about what is ok to say these days.” If H*tler’s unseen tasters merited discourse, what other stories need telling? 

So, What’s Next?

Brooks’ fears about an empty Edinburgh Fringe theater for H*tler’s Tasters were unfounded; it was Standing Room Only. Her wait—what? instincts prompted her to pen seven other critically acclaimed plays; several center on Jewish characters. She’s written features for the Daily Beast and other print outlets, was commissioned to turn a memoir into a TV series and has created other audiovisual content. She just finished an educational graphic novel about misinformation. H*tler’s Tasters may become a limited series on streaming services. Although she describes her life as an artist as “98% rejection,” she’s on a roll. She considers herself “fortunate to follow my weird little bliss in a way… and for the most part, I have found that people have been interested in coming along for the ride.” Like me, they’re probably anticipating the next “Wait—What? adventure.

 

Rachel Kovacs is an Adjunct Associate Professor of communication at CUNY, a PR professional, theater reviewer for offoffonline.com—and a Judaics teacher. She trained in performance at Brandeis and Manchester Universities, Sharon Playhouse, and the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. She can be reached at [email protected].

 

  

 

   

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