I had not yet finished reading Hana’s Suitcase when my mind began to spin with the possibilities of turning a beautiful story into a powerful play. As I read certain passages I pictured them on stage and knew I could use all the tools theatre has to offer: sets, costumes, music, slides, masks, even silence. A well-timed pause can speak volumes and tell us more about a character or situation than any amount of dialogue.
From the very start, I knew bringing Hana’s Suitcase to life on stage would present certain challenges, and many rewards. How far into the darkness of the Holocaust do you go, knowing young children will be watching the play? How do you condense layered lives into ninety minutes on stage? How much of the book do you preserve, and what gets left behind?
Process is as important as production when creating a play, especially an adaptation. That process includes working with colleagues – a director, a dramaturge – who offer feedback and insights as the play takes shape from draft to draft to draft. A world of its own emerges, a world with its own rules and rituals. In the world of this play, the past and present are braided but never blend: Akira and Maiko imagine Hana’s story as it unfolds but cannot affect it; unable to change the past, they unearth their potential to shape the future.
The play is punctuated with references to nameless Figures, ghost-like characters dressed in colourless clothing and masks that reveal no emotions. The Figures are anonymous and have been stripped of details to reflect the casualties of war: victims are denied their identity as perpetrators lose their humanity.
And so a play about the Holocaust ends on a positive note: the last image of the play is of a Japanese girl pretending she is a Jew in Czechoslovakia. It is a small but hopeful gesture that reminds us of the power of theatre to scatter seeds, seeds that all of us – on stage and behind the scenes – have to believe will take root.