Here There Are Blueberries; Moisés Kaufman and Amanda Gronich Bring a New Perspective to the Holocaust | Playbill

Special Features Here There Are Blueberries; Moisés Kaufman and Amanda Gronich Bring a New Perspective to the Holocaust

The play dramatizes the discovery of Nazi-era photographs, which showed an untold side of life at Auschwitz.

Moisés Kaufman and Amanda Gronich Jenny Anderson

When a historical event is as analyzed as the Holocaust, it can be daunting to approach it with fresh eyes.

"Unlike all of my colleagues, I'd actually never worked on anything about about the Holocaust or World War II before," shares playwright Amanda Gronich. "This is the most-written-about period in human history. There's just so much out there, and finding something new to say could have been impossible."

Gronich has proven herself wrong. Her newest play (which she cowrote with Moisés KaufmanHere There Are Blueberries proved that it is possible to provide a new perspective, albeit an uncomfortable one. The play was just named a Pulitzer Prize finalist and is currently running Off-Broadway in an extended run at New York Theatre Workshop until June 30.

The play, which first premiered at La Jolla Playhouse, was inspired by the discovery of a mysterious Nazi-era photo album, retrieved by a U.S. counterintelligence officer and delivered to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in 2007. Documenting the day-to-day life of the Nazi members who operated the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp, news of the historic discovery rocked the world.

"I saw the front page of The New York Times, and I had to go to the museum," says Kaufman, who also directs Here There Are Blueberries. "I was overwhelmed by the amount of information that was available."

The photo album, taken and assembled by SS officer Karl Höcker, is a stark reminder of an untold perspective from the Holocaust. While much of the focus of study has, rightfully, been on the victims of genocide, the album brought into question long-accepted ideas in the general public about Nazi behavior. For many, examining the Holocaust from the side of its perpetrator was a horrifying betrayal, but to others, it was an illuminating glimpse at the horrors human beings are capable of compartmentalizing. The contrast is stark; the Nazis built a resort where they could relax and vacation, right outside of the concentration camps.

"Both Amanda and I have a family who died in the Holocaust," Kaufman explains. "The Holocaust is the event that has been most written about in the history of literature. I always questioned what else there was to say. I never thought that there would be anything new. And then I saw these photographs, and they were something new and exciting. We spoke at great length about what happens when you center the perpetrators in the narrative, and yes, we were very daunted by that. We heard a lot of people saying, 'Well, don't humanize the Nazis.' And my response to that was, 'I don't have to humanize them. They're human'. There's a line in the play, 'Six million people didn't kill themselves.' It's important that we are also studying the psychology of the people who did this."

Nemuna Ceesay, Elizabeth Stahlmann, Kathleen Chalfant, and Erika Rose in Here There Are Blueberries Matthew Murphy

Working closely in tandem with the museum and its wide range of sources, Here There Are Blueberries is told without a fourth wall; the photographs are directly presented and analyzed live for the audience, with characters (based on real people) speaking words many of those same people spoke to Gronich and Kaufman throughout their research. 

"The whole time we were writing, we felt survivors and victims and their families sitting on our shoulders, constantly," Gronich adds. "We build context in the play, of what's happening outside the frame. These SS officers are frolicking and having fun on their days off and eating blueberries, and just outside the frame is the killing of 1.1 million people. While we were working on the play, we had the opportunity to show the photos to survivors who had actually been at Auschwitz, during the time of Höcker when photos were taken. And, without exception, every one of them said, 'You must tell this story.' They were not surprised by seeing that human beings are capable of this dichotomy, between having fun on their days off and committing genocide. They felt so powerfully that people didn't know this, and that they needed to see it."

While the piece has been in development for close to a decade and premiered in 2022, the Israel-Hamas war has thrust the production into a new, highly charged spotlight. As two founding member of Tectonic Theatre Project, both Gronich and Kaufman have taken the scrutiny in stride.

"I think one of the major questions that the play poses is, 'What is the distance between culpability, complicity and complacency? And where do we fall in that continuum'?" Kaufman details. "We started writing many years before this specific conflict arose, but we knew we were writing a play that was going to be relevant, unfortunately, in different moments in history."

Adds Gronich: "I've never, in all my decades working in and out of the theatre, seen audiences so laser focused on the play, and on the questions the play raises. You can feel people's deeply personal connections to the conversations that it elicits."

Kaufman compares Here There Are Blueberries to Tectonic's most well-known work, The Laramie Project—which just celebrated its 23rd anniversary. That play also examined the notion of complicity, within a small town where a young gay man named Matthew Shepard was brutally murdered in a hate crime.

"Tectonic Theater Project often does work that exists at the intersection of the political and the personal," Kaufman says. "We are used to people having strong responses to our work, but furthermore, we are very used to the play changing over time. When we first did The Laramie Project, it was read and perceived as a play about LGB rights. But now, the majority of the crimes against our community are against trans people. When we did Gross Indecency, the three trials of Oscar Wilde, it was at a time when the issue of free speech was very much on the line because NEA funding was being cut for artists that had done work that was very radical. So, the play was about about freedom of speech. But also, it's about Oscar Wilde, who was 40, and Lord Alfred Douglas, who was 21. And then, right after that, the Clinton scandal with Monica Lewinsky came to pass, and so some of the play became about that. We are keenly aware that when you create work that exists in that intersection of the personal and the political, it will continue to evolve, according to what's happening in the outside world."

Company of Here There Are Blueberries Matthew Murphy

As reactions to Here There Are Blueberries shift in relationship to current events, another significant cultural change is up for examination: truth, or rather, our distancing relationship to it.

The 21st century may well be remembered as the Dark Age of Truth. Through the proliferation of misinformation, deepfake images, and AI-generated vocals, it is increasingly difficult to trust things that were once arbiters of reality; to see is certainly no longer to believe. As our foundational concept of truth warps, theatre remains one of the last unadulterated things to which humanity can cling; when screens become saturated with misinformation, the value of a person speaking tangibly skyrockets.

"The actor is still alive, and they're still present, at least for now," Kaufman states. "That doesn't mean that they can't lie, but at least there's a base level of reality. When the internet came out, I had this great hope, because I am a romantic. I believed that the basic tenet of democracy, that democracy works best when the population is better informed, would come to pass. The reckoning of democracy, where everyone would have access to more information, and know what happened in every situation."

Unfortunately, that was not the effect. "Basically, we returned to the cave age," Kaufman shakes his head. "We are all in our little caves with our little friends, and we don't see what's happening outside the cave. And the algorithms that are deciding what we see and what we don't see are the new Oracle of Delphi. They decide what our future is going to be. Theatre is one of the few places where the truth of the actor cannot be meddled with, and we don't take that responsibility lightly. When we created the Tectonic Theater Project, we had this very lofty dream—that theatre could play a role in the national and international dialogue about the social, political and human issues that affect us all. That's a pretty high order, right? But we have been fortunate enough that some of our plays have been able to do that. We hope something similar will happen to this play, to call people out of the cave."

Scott Barrow in Here There Are Blueberries Matthew Murphy

Gronich leans forward, continuing the thought. "There's this moment in the play, where Sara J. Bloomfield, the director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, says, 'The least trusted parts of our society, when people are polled in surveys, are the government, big business, and social media. One of the most trusted? Museums, Why? Because we show original artifacts, we give people the information, and we let them make decisions for themselves.'"

Kaufman hums in agreement as Gronich continues on. "I think theatre is also one of the last bastions of where truth can thrive. We make a point to say, 'The photographs you are about to see in this play are real.' You are watching a team of people using the scientific method to incredibly rigorous standards. They are historians. They are fact checking and they are looking to make sure that every detail of the information that they are sharing with the public is true and factually based. Sharing the rigor of that process with the audience restores this sort of nobility to it while also illuminating and saying, 'In our truth-deficient world, there are people out there who are warriors, who are on the front lines every day making sure that the truth of the story or as close to it as we can get is revealed and shared."

When a performance of Here There Are Blueberries concludes, audiences filter out through the lobby, past a meticulous copy of a photograph shown in the play. For Gronich, that final ending experience is key. "What is the full theatrical experience? It continues into the lobby, you're still in dialogue and in discourse with the play you just saw as you walk out. Now, you're looking at this artifact, and yes, it's a facsimile, but it was painstakingly made to the millimeter, and is as exact a replica as possible."

As audiences congregate around the small podium on which the replica photograph is placed, moments of unpredictable theatre occur almost every night. On one particularly emotional evening, the crowd parted in silence as an elderly woman slowly shuffled forward, her arm gingerly wrapped around the shoulders of a young girl. As the woman gazed at the photo, her eyes inscrutable, a man stepped forward from the crowd, picking up the young girl so she could see the image from the same vantagepoint. And then, after a few moments, the woman and girl departed in silence, the spell of observance maintained as they exited,

"That is lobby theatre," Gronich states, emotional. "In that moment, the audience becomes playwrights themselves."

While the production has now been produced in three cities—La Jolla, California, Washington, D.C., and NYC—  Kaufman says there's plans for a longer life.

"There's a tour of it planned, for San Francisco, Los Angeles, Toronto, Madrid, Milan, and we're looking into London and Berlin," said Kaufman, "There is a hunger for this kind of discourse, and there's a kind of hunger for this kind of dialogue. I think that in the theatre, we can always have the most enlightening conversations about our moral duties in society. And I think people are hungry for those kinds of dialogues right now. We are starving for true conversation."

Photos: Here There Are Blueberries at New York Theatre Workshop

Today’s Most Popular News:

Blocking belongs
on the stage,
not on websites.

Our website is made possible by
displaying online advertisements to our visitors.

Please consider supporting us by
whitelisting with your ad blocker.
Thank you!