Hidden histories, heroes and martyrs, oppressed people who said something, fought back, made a difference: those are the characters Barbara Kahn brings to life in her historical dramas, which are a staple of each season at Theater for the New City.
Kahn’s latest work, “Verzet Amsterdam” (“Resistance Amsterdam”), which opens April 5, is the 25th play she’s presented at Crystal Field’s essential theater venue on the Lower East Side.
Telling the story of artists, some of them gay, who resisted fascism and protected Jews from deportation in German-occupied Amsterdam in World War II, Kahn’s play is directed by her and Robert Gonzales, Jr., and features a cast featuring Gonzales, Steve Barkman, Benjamin Cardona, Carl Ellis Grant, Jared Johnston, Anya Krawcheck, Christopher Lowe, Paolo Solis, and Steph Van Vlack.
Kahn’s commitment to telling the untold came from advice given to her by her sister.
“I was writing contemporary comedies,” the actor-turned-playwright said. “Then, through my sister Phyllis, who is a human rights activist and at that time was on the board of Amnesty International, I got to meet former political prisoners and hear their stories. I said to her one day, ‘I wish I could do what you do. I hear these horror stories and get upset and depressed. You hear them, then you get busy and get more prisoners released.’”
Phyllis replied: “Why don’t you do what you do best?”
That is: writing.
“I immediately shifted gears, and started to write plays about injustice and oppression,” Kahn said. “About people whose lives have been either distorted or omitted in popular culture, and I look for the stories about people or situations that I’m shocked that I don’t know about or didn’t know about before.”
For her subjects, Kahn reads widely and scours a range of history websites. She subscribes to newsletters and researches original historical materials and documents. “Verzet Amsterdam” began to take shape for her last year.
“I saw a brief historical note about the wartime activities of Frieda Belinfante, a lesbian cellist, and her friend Willem “Willi” Arondeus, a gay poet and painter,” Kahn said. “The actions of their resistance group were extraordinary in saving Jewish lives at the risk of their own. I wondered why, with my interest in history — in particular LGBT and Jewish history — I had never heard of these two.”
Kahn then went into serious research mode, trying to find as much information as possible about her subjects from historical records.
“I prefer to read primary research, rather than a history book about the person,” she said. “And when I find that voice, of the person herself, then I find what gives me the play. I don’t plot it out as a play, even when it’s a true story and I know what the ending is. I approach it as an actor. When I have the characters and the situation, they start talking to each other and they do improvs in my mind. And I start writing it down. When I have some of it, I start structuring it: What if we had a transition here? What if this other character joins them?”
Onstage, as dramatic works, Kahn’s plays use history to create a dramatic narrative structure: she can’t use every character who took part in a particular event or movement.
“So I have to figure out through my research who the main participants are,” she said. “And I really focus on them, and try to find more information about them. I was able to find, even though I don’t speak Dutch, some primary sources for this play.”
One of Willem’s lines, which she found in a statement he made to his lawyer after he was arrested by the Gestapo is: “Let them know the homosexuals are not cowards!”
The other main character, Frieda, also said something that Kahn used as one of the key lines in the work.
“When Frieda and Willi talk about the action and what is at stake and the risk involved, and he says something about not surviving, she asks, ‘Would you mind that?’ And he said, ‘Of course I will. Why would you ask a question like that?’”
Frieda replies, “I want to know that I will have lived a life worth living.”
“One of the reasons I was drawn to these characters and the actions they took, with their resistance against fascism, is the relevance,” Kahn said. “I often write in grant applications that writing historical plays holds a mirror to the present. And I believe that.
“If I present the same ideas and ideals in an historical setting, most people can get it. Most people can make the connection. And sometimes someone will come up to me after a performance and say, “That’s just like what’s going on now.’”
When Kahn hears responses like that, she said, she feels she’s not only writing plays for herself as an artist, but also continuing her father’s legacy. Kahn’s father came to the US as a child, a refugee from a war zone.
“I know what to think when I see those terrible photos of the Syrian children and from other countries,” she said. “I have to do what I know how to do, as my sister said, so wisely. She’s my younger sister and a great role model.”
VERZET AMSTERDAM | Theater for the New City, 155 First Ave., btwn. Ninth & 10th Sts.| Apr. 5-22: Thu.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Sun. at 3 p.m. | $15; $12 for seniors & students at theaterfor
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