In February, a small group from Detroit took the enlightening and educational show on the road.
A total of nearly 4,500 Arizona middle schoolers of diverse heritages watched a dramatization of a Jewish middle schooler confronting the Holocaust, and they wanted to know more about the terrifying times.
These students became the first out-of-state audiences to see performances of The Diary of Anne Frank as staged by Michigan’s Jewish Ensemble Theatre (JET). In February, the Detroit troupe of 16 performed the play five times at the Madison Center for the Arts in Phoenix. Each performance included a presentation by two Holocaust survivors, along with a question-and-answer period.
Student surveys showed 89 percent of those attending remained interested in additional facts about Anne Frank and the Holocaust, and 87 percent felt they had changed their minds about feelings toward people of other religions, races and backgrounds.
“It was so heartening to see all these young people — Jewish, Christian, Latino and Native American — have a shared emotional experience and seem to bond together because of it,” said Christopher Bremer, JET executive director. “Our young audiences watched intently and asked questions that showed they thought about what they learned.”
JET spent three years raising funds — $75,000 to bring the production to Arizona — and arranging for this student experience in Phoenix. Instrumental in the effort was Sally Ginn, a JET board member who divides her time between Michigan and Arizona. Her ideas and efforts became the driving force for putting everything together, Bremer said. Now the focus is on future performances casting actors based in Arizona.
The Walled Lake-based JET has staged The Diary of Anne Frank more than any other theater company in the world, bringing the play to Michigan schoolchildren for 25 years and reaching more than 100,000 students.
Ginn, who had public relations and cable production jobs, used her skills to engage organizations and individuals inside and outside the Jewish community to raise funds and gain educator interest.
With the support of the Jewish Community Foundation of Greater Phoenix, she also enlisted help from the Jewish Federation of Greater Phoenix and the Valley of the Sun Jewish Community Center.
“I want young people to understand this history before [those who hate] can get to them,” said Ginn, who created committees to handle production-associated responsibilities, which included 50 Jewish and non-Jewish volunteers.
One committee found props locally to avoid costs related to transporting stage settings from Michigan. Because of the intent of the project, businesses cut prices, materials were donated and found objects were adapted.
Cindy and John Millikin of Scottsdale had been affected by seeing the Anne Frank house in Amsterdam and offered to help. She worked with props, and he ushered. She also took pictures at performances.
Peg and Jeff Thoren of Chandler, Arizona, also wanted to help because of their visit to the Frank home. They turned to the Salvation Army for period pieces and donated a grandfather’s chest of drawers.
“This effort created such a sense of community,” Peg Thoren said.
By chance, Judy Laufer’s mother Katie Egett and mother-in-law Pearl Laufer, in their 90s, were visiting from Canada during performance week, and she added them to the program.
“They didn’t want to see the play because they lived through those times, but they answered student questions,” said Laufer, a play volunteer, author of children’s books about the Holocaust and a speaker for the Jewish Book Council. “In introducing them, I explained how my mother survived Auschwitz and my mother-in-law survived being hidden in Poland.
“Some youngsters didn’t realize the Holocaust was about the Jews,” Laufer said.
Kerry Grimes, a teacher at Arizona College Preparatory-Oakland, took 303 eighth graders to the production.
“Though the students knew how the play was going to end due to prior classroom instruction, the actors were able to successfully convey the tension building within the annex and held their attention from beginning to end,” Grimes said.
Jamie Bradley brought 87 students from the Dobson Academy in Chandler.
“The eighth graders had learned about World War II in social studies, and this play showed my students real struggles Jewish people faced,” she said.
“Seeing [the play] and reading about [the Holocaust] are both worthy; each adds to the education of our children.”
Lisa Duncan brought 30 students from Montessori Day Schools in Phoenix and Chandler.
“They commented about how physically close they had to be and how they had no privacy,” she said. “As early adolescents, they value their privacy, and Anne’s loss of that was hard for them to see.”
Ginn was especially touched to hear about students at a Native American school selling cookies to raise money to cover the total ticket price although donor funding was available. Funds to continue the program were raised during an evening performance for adults honoring Lanny Lahr, a former Detroiter who gave much help to this year’s initiative.
“For these Native American youngsters, going to live theater was an event,” Ginn said. “In their own way, they were among all the people who put so much into getting everything done. The people kept me going and will keep me going as we work toward more productions.”
JET’s 2020 Season
Because of the coronavirus pandemic, the mainstage JET season is on hold. Visit jettheatre.org or call (248) 788-2900 for updates.