The Holocaust is a widely known tragedy, yet is likely remembered by many as a whole rather than for its parts — the culmination of many individual stories from both sides. “The Obligation” brings just a few of those important individual stories to light. The play highlights the human stories of the Holocaust, whether from a soldier of Hitler’s army or a young boy growing up in Nazi Germany. Led by the talent of Roger Grunwald, “The Obligation” brings a new perspective to a broadly recognized historical event.
Written and performed by Grunwald, “The Obligation” is a one-man show with the intention of keeping Holocaust survivor stories alive. The show, directed by Nancy Carlin, premiered at Potrero Stage in San Francisco on Oct. 11 and will play through Nov. 4.
The play follows a handful of characters, Grunwald shifting gears every so often to tell different people’s stories. It begins with an 11-year-old boy trying to make sense of the war and later shifts to an officer in Hitler’s army, among others. It’s a poignant experience to get to know these characters intimately through Grunwald’s portrayal. It is just as fascinating — if not more so — to get to know the characters of the enemy side. Grunwald gives insight into the real humans who made up Hitler’s ruthless army. He illustrates their humanity without sympathizing with them, exposing racism and anti-Semitism and casting a spotlight on the uglier side of human nature.
Each of these characters comes directly out of the past. The structure of the play is such that these characters from the Holocaust era are speaking to a present-day audience. At one point, a character tells the audience to Google a reference he makes if they don’t know it. And, at another point, a character compares the racism of the U.S. to that of Nazi Germany, pointing out the segregation laws that stayed in place long after World War II. It allows for audience members to think about their own place in history while providing a perspective of comparison that may not be often brought up. This retrospective perspective, of characters from the past speaking to present-day audience members, is an extremely compelling aspect of the production. It is as if history is speaking directly to you.
Another major strength of the play is Carlin’s direction. Her directorial vision is stellar and seamless. The stage blocking is especially notable. The physical movements of each character are starkly different from each other — essential when one man is playing multiple roles — and always incredibly natural. From the hand motions to the ways of pacing, each movement is so natural that it is easy to overlook, allowing for the main focus to lie on the words being spoken.
Grunwald slowly changes costumes to prepare for the next character as he continues the current story, and it is as if the audience is merely watching a character get ready rather than seeing a logistical element of production — mere costume changes — occurring on stage.
The blocking is also not overdone, which can be a fault of one-person shows — feeling the need for the actor to always be doing something. There are some moments where Grunwald is just standing, staring into the audience and speaking directly to his viewers. These moments are just as effective as when he is moving around or utilizing a stage prop.
This play is grounded in admirable intentions: the desire to keep these stories alive. This intention becomes a little too forceful toward the end of the play, however, when a character speaks explicitly about the obligation to continue to remember these stories. At this point, audiences are not only being told stories, but are being directly told not to forget them. It is a distracting moment that takes viewers out of the world of the play. It also undermines its own message; these stories have a powerful impact on their own merit and are clearly memorable without being categorized as so.
Despite this minor issue, the play as a whole achieves what it sets out to do. These stories are given their spotlight and the contrasts among them paint a broader, more realistic picture of exactly what the Holocaust consisted of. It’s heavy in historical knowledge and, for the most part, lacks humor, making for an overall serious tone fitting for such a crucial piece of history. When it comes down to it, “The Obligation” and its message are worth watching and, ultimately, worth remembering.
Nikki Munoz covers theater. Contact her at [email protected].