'Here There Are Blueberries': A Carefully Woven Tapestry, Even with Fraying Seams

Issue Eight: Here There Are Blueberries
Maddie Rostami
May 29, 2024
Maddie Rostami

Maddie Rostami (they/she) is a Brooklyn-based dramaturg, producer, and educator. They're the Senior Program Manager for CO/LAB Theater Group, a non-profit that provides creative and social opportunities to participants with developmental disabilities. Maddie previously served as the line producer for the Shahrazad Squad, a project supporting SWANASA women in partnership with Cal Shakes. They're the former Associate Artistic Director of Inclusion at the Portola Valley Theater Conservatory and a proud alum of the Berkeley Rep fellowship program. Favorite dramaturgy credits include EVER IN THE GLADES at The Kennedy Center and EYE C U at Victory Gardens.

**The following review includes conversation around the play’s final moments – read ahead with that knowledge.**

Tectonic Theater Project’s Here There Are Blueberries (now playing at New York Theatre Workshop) is a dramaturgical feat, in nearly every sense of the word.

The play begins with a spotlight on a 1930s camera – a Leica. As actors take the stage to share the revelatory history of these more portable cameras,we understand a central conceit of the storytelling: onstage action will only ever happen in conjunction with the presence of projected real-life photos.

As they explain, the initial photos shift – a group of bathing-suit-clad women on a dock is replaced by a family at the beach with the Nazi flag flying in the breeze behind them. The shift is subtle; the subjects are still at play. But the weight of the iconography was felt immediately in the theater. Around me, shoulders wilted and audience members sighed or clicked their tongues.

Nemuna Ceesay, Elizabeth Stahlmann, Kathleen Chalfant and Erika Rose in HERE THERE ARE BLUEBERRIES at New York Theatre Workshop. Photo Credit: Matthew Murphy.

From here, the dramaturgical machine of Here There Are Blueberries begins. Archivist Rebecca Erbelding, deftly played by Elizabeth Stahlmann, walks us through the discovery of  a photo album featuring photos of officers and administrative workers stationed at Auschwitz. like the beachside photos, the subjects seem so at peace, in the snapshots. And Rebecca, along with her supervisor Judy (a standout performance from Kathleen Chalfant) are left with a challenge – the photos of these perpetrators clearly have historical significance, but should they be displayed at an institution that centers the victims?

A tapestry begins to weave itself onstage as they dive in: a patchwork of images, archive tables, foley art stands, actors, and even an accordion, all working to tell two parallel histories: the history of Auschwitz at the height of the war, but also the more modern history of discovering the album and unraveling its mysteries. The deeper we got into these mysteries, the more I suspected that Here There Are Blueberries would be a dramaturg’s dream.

A few days later, I sat down with Amy Marie Seidel, a multi-hyphenate artist who served as a devisor, as well as the piece’s associate director and dramaturg.  Amy affirmed that it was a gift “to be the nerd in the room.” From day one of her involvement with the project (which goes back nearly to its inception), grappling with the hard, intergenerational questions has been at the core of Tectonic’s creative process:

“You have to sincerely grapple with a smiling, warm face who you can identify with on some level and know the reality of the evil that they committed. Your body doesn't really know what to do with that…That feeling turned into the [play’s] guiding question: how do you eat blueberries next to a concentration camp?”

Tectonic’s methodology is rooted in Moment Work, building Moments, or “units of theatrical time,” from interviews and research. And as Amy said, the duality of this project made for a rich creative process as the team built connections across decades and across the globe…

“...because we used resources ranging from social media messages between historians to the most niche of European archives. And of course, being in community with the people who you're writing about changes the game.”

From these two histories, personal Moments took shape onstage. I could truly feel the community Amy referenced. Judy and Rebecca care for each other as they question what the subjects of the photos knew, and whether they might have gone down a similar path. Nazi descendants Tilman Taube and Rainer Höss (portrayed by Jonathan Raviv and Charlie Thurston), reckon with their family history and the paths they take to reshape their family legacy.

The contrast between the Auschwitz photos and these intimate connective moments between people was powerful: hearing direct, personal accounts of the cost of Nazi legacies felt like a human version of centering perpetrators. And when contrasted against the Auschwitz photos, these moments felt like strongly woven threads, keeping the story intact and grounded in humanity amidst the heavy history.

Elizabeth Stahlmann in HERE THERE ARE BLUEBERRIES at New York Theatre Workshop. Photo Credit: Matthew Murphy.

The aforementioned tapestry is at its best artful and grounding. But having a central guiding question felt at times limiting: I got it – the Nazis in the photos could commit some of the worst atrocities imaginable, and still feel like they were having a good time. I didn’t need another set of photos, or another Moment describing the jobs these men held outside of the camp – a confectioner, an accountant – for that point to land. Even the technical prowess of the tapestry lost its strength; when projection screens faltered – revealing a loading page instead of an image – it made me question what element of the show’s dramaturgy was truly capturing my attention – the photos or the stories? At times, the visual spectacle distracted (or perhaps even desensitized) me from the true guiding question.

During the show’s development process, Amy and other members of the creative team visited Auschwitz during the spring:

“You walked down and birds were chirping and wildflowers were growing, and there were little wild cats sort of prowling and jumping on different little animals. And I thought, much like the Höcker Album –  how do I reconcile the reality with what it is that I'm experiencing? And it kind of gave me this warmth of knowing that, even after so much human atrocity, at the end of the day, there's something bigger that's taking care of us, that's taking care of the earth. And she is triumphing, even through all of the worst human atrocities.”

This sense of rebirth brought me back to …Blueberries’ most poignant moment – Elizabeth Stahlmann embodying Lili Jacobs, a holocaust survivor. Jacobs possessed the only other Auschwitz photo album, which she tells us depicted the very day her family arrived at the camp. She is the lone survivor. I wanted a whole play just of Lili’s story – for all of the play’s investigation of whether or not to give a forum for exploring the perpetrators’ stories, Lili’s humanity was still the most impactful. The audible audience reactions, so present in the first photo montage, had faded until Lili’s presence – now replaced by the intake of breath before a sob, the quiet sighs of sorrowful recognition.

In the play’s final moments, Lili says: “Now I want the album to be shown to everyone. So I have decided to donate it. It is like parting with loved ones. I share it with you now because time passes on. And we all live in the world.”

I admittedly found myself frustrated by the play (or theater’s?) lack of engagement with our current-day crises – they seem to be in conversation so clearly. It’s a running joke amongst dramaturgs to ask “WhY thIs pLaY nOw?” So it felt like a failure of the so-called “double crop” to leave that conversation behind. But as I’ve sat with my thoughts, as I’ve sat with Lili’s words, and with the wildflowers growing at Auschwitz, I’m finding a different kind of power in Here There Are Blueberries.

There are countless horrors happening today across the world – in Gaza and Sudan and the Congo, to name a few – and in our own backyard. History will tell us there will be horrors to come. But if we can take a hard look and ask ourselves…what can we do to be less complicit? …what stories – or photographs – can we share to shape the narrative? If we can take those actions, and call out the complicity when we see it, then we can play a small part in the resurgence of springtime. And there’s power in a play that makes you ready to plant those seeds.

Nick Brundle Photography via Getty Images.

Here There Are Blueberries plays at New York Theatre Workshop through June 30, 2024.

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