'Hana’s Suitcase' at Seattle Children’s Theatre tells a true and inspiring detective story about the Holocaust
Hana's Suitcase runs through Feb 7th and is recommended for ages 10 and up.
Seattle Children’s Theatre has been a crown jewel of children’s entertainment in our city for several decades. Parents have come to depend on it for fun family outings, exposure to the arts and revisiting favorite stories in new ways. However, sometimes SCT offers up an experience that transcends entertainment and can actually alter both the self-perception and worldview of our children. Hana’s Suitcase is one such experience.
The play adapted by Emil Sher, based on the book by Karen Levine, is based on true events from both Czechoslovakia in WWII and in present day Tokyo. Fumiko Isioka is the curator of the Holocaust Education Center in Tokyo. The Center receives several artifacts from the Auschwitz for exhibition, and one of these items is Hana’s suitcase. The students who visit the center are intrigued by the suitcase that simply bears Hana’s name, birthdate, and the word waisenkind which means orphan. The children urge Ishioka to find out more about Hana, and the search for details begins. The first half of the play ends with the exciting news that Ishioka has learned that Hana’s brother, George Brady, survived the war and is living in Toronto.
The second half of the play is more somber. Ishioka reads a letter from George Brady that tells Hana’s story while the story is simultaneously portrayed by actors on stage. While there is no ignoring the facts of Hana’s short life, the play focuses on bringing Hana to life and making her a relatable figure for kids today. We learn about what she liked to do, who her friends were, things she was scared of and things she dreamed about. In short, the audience along with the kids at Tokyo’s Holocaust Education Center learns that Hana is just like kids today, no matter where they live.
Hana’s Suitcase is an important story that needs to be told and remembered. It provides a marvelous opportunity for conversations and dialogue with older kids and teens. While my own eleven-year-old daughter knows the basic story of the Holocaust, she was shocked to learn how the gradual steps of oppression and prejudice led to genocide. For her the most heart-breaking moment was when Hana saw her friend Maria and waved but Maria was too afraid to wave back, too afraid to be associated with Hana and her Jewish family. The conversation led us to talk about people in our country today who are treated as different, as outsiders. Learning to recognize injustice when it happens to others and not just to us is the first step to making the world a better place.
The audience on opening night was treated to a post-show Q&A with the real Fumiko Ishioka and the real George Brady. It is not something that either my daughter or I are likely to forget. For me, this experience left me with a great sense of hope for the future. Hana’s story will be remembered and retold over and over again all because of a handful of kids in Tokyo wanted to know more and their teacher was willing to do the work necessary to recover the story.
The story of Hana and George Brady is compelling in its own right, but the production of the show takes it to a new level. The audience is carried along a very emotional road with the Japanese students that begins with curiosity and ends with empathy. The Japanese students Maiko and Akira, played to perfection by Lisa Truong and Jeff Ho are both the catalyst and the filter for the audience’s own emotional experience. We are as excited as they are with each new bit of information learned about Hana and also as reluctant to face the truth of her death. The mix of multimedia and live action on stage makes for a powerful combination. The show manages to portray the events of one of the most violent times in human history without ever showing actual violence on stage. The unspoken words are perhaps the most powerful of all.
Some show stick with you long after you leave the auditorium. My hope is that this play will resonate with the children of Seattle and wherever else it may show for a long time. In our modern world, learning empathy and finding commonalities with people who may seem very different from us are more important than ever. Learning to recognize injustice and speak up for those who are oppressed is our best hope for growing peace. While Hana’s story is one of epic proportions, the lessons learned applicable even on a small scale. The Nazis were the bullies, Hana and George were the bullied and Maria was the bystander who just watched it happen. It’s not enough to not be a bully, we must teach our kids that they have the power to stop bullies. We must speak up for the Hanas of our world or we may be left holding an empty suitcase.
IF YOU GO:
Where: Seattle Children’s Theatre 201 Thomas Street, Seattle 98109
When: Thurs. 7pm, Fri. 7pm, Sat. 2pm & 5:30pm, Sun 2pm through Feb. 7th
Cost: Child $22-$33, Adult $22-$40 depending on show date & time
Kelly Rogers Flynt is a freelance writer based out of Lake Forest Park and the mother of children ages eleven and fourteen who are learning empathy through reading, travel, and great plays like Hana’s Suitcase.