By Ed Karvoski Jr., Contributing Writer
Shrewsbury – Cast and crew members of the Oak Middle School (OMS) Performing Arts Department have learned more about the Holocaust by participating in enrichment activities to prepare for their upcoming production. They’ll present “And a Child Shall Lead” by Michael Slade for two performances: Friday and Saturday, Nov. 18 and 19, at 7 p.m. at OMS, 45 Oak St. in Shrewsbury.
OMS is producing the play by arrangement with Playscripts. According to the Playscripts website, “This is the heroic and true story of children coming of age in Terezin, the ‘Jewish city’ established by the Nazis near Prague as a way station before the death camps. In the face of unspeakable horror, these children use their determination and creativity to build lives filled with hope and beauty – playing, studying, making art, and writing an underground newspaper – all at the peril of being executed. Their actual poems and stories are woven into a fast-paced drama, evoking the universality of children caught in the insanity of war.”
The play was chosen by drama teacher Carolyn Jepsen, who is directing the production. She appreciates the challenge of working with a strong storyline for her students.
“Most of these characters fall directly in the middle school age bracket,” she noted. “These characters’ strength was incredible and the courage that it takes to portray them is also incredible. It gives the students a chance to shine and to tell an important story.”
A number of the characters are artists who express themselves by drawing and writing. Likewise, the cast members have been creating art and journaling from their characters’ perspective throughout the rehearsal process.
Students also participated in workshops conducted at OMS. They heard firsthand experiences of Worcester resident Thea Aschkenase, author of “Remembering: A Holocaust Survivor Shares Her Life.” She and her mother both survived Auschwitz.
“The overarching piece that the students took away from Thea was how much it mattered to have her mother there with her,” Jepsen relayed. “The importance of a family connection is something they’ve been able to capitalize on, both on and offstage. Because of that, they’ve really connected more as a cast.”
Another visitor to OMS was Mark Ludwig, founder and executive director of the Terezín Music Foundation. An adjunct professor at Boston College, he teaches “Art and Music during the Holocaust and Third Reich.” At OMS, he spoke with students about symbolism in artworks created in Terezín.
“The students appreciated that Mark didn’t talk down to them,” Jepsen recalled. “He treated them with the expectation that they understood the gravity of the story, which they do. Because of the symbolism that he spoke about, they’ve found further layers in the script and put them into their own journal entries and art. Conversations they had with Thea and Mark have made them more determined to tell an authentic story.”
Jepsen hopes the audience of all ages will also learn lessons from seeing the production.
“I hope they’ll recognize the courage of the children that were in this terrible situation and find inspiration from it like we have,” she said. “I also hope they recognize the courage that it’s taking for the cast to be up there doing this. It takes a courageous child to survive the world of World War II, and it also takes a courageous child to then tell the story of what happened. The cast is treating it with an amazing amount of respect.”
OMS media promotions state, “This show explores extremely sensitive material pertaining to the Holocaust including death and sickness within a community of children. Parental discretion is advised.” Tickets are $12 for adults, $10 for students and seniors, and will be available at the door.