Here, But Not Now: 'On Here There Are Blueberries'

Issue Eight: Here There Are Blueberries
Amelia Merrill
May 21, 2024
Amelia Merrill

Amelia Merrill is a critic, reporter, and playwright based in New York. Her work can be read in American Theatre, TheaterMania, New York Theatre Guide, AwardsWatch, Hey Alma, and some places that no longer exist.

Documentary theater is a staple of the Tectonic Theater Project, an offering synonymous with the company’s name. Like a Wes Anderson movie, if you go in expecting something different, you may leave annoyed or disappointed. Here There Are Blueberries, the Pulitzer Prize finalist now running in a co-production at New York Theatre Workshop, is no exception.

The play follows the mid-2000s discovery of a photo album kept by an SS officer, Karl Höcker (Scott Barrow), a high-ranking assistant at Auschwitz as the death camp raged at full speed. On the page, Tectonic’s signature format shines, with archivists and researchers at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum parsing through documents and explaining their findings to the audience. Much of this exposition is narrated by Rebecca Erbelding (Elizabeth Stahlmann), the archivist who accepted the photo album and guides the play with a gentle hand.

Elizabeth Stahlmann in Here There Are Blueberries at New York Theatre Workshop. Photo Credit: Matthew Murphy

Onstage, however, the exposition is too often at the center. The play feels more like a lecture, a historical overview with repeated indignant questions of how regular people could have committed such evils. Holocaust education is rife with such questions, along with the analysis that because the Nazis ensured that no one person felt entirely responsible for decisions of life and death, no one could be blamed as responsible.

Holocaust theater, on the other hand, need not rely on such basic discussions. Questions of guilt and culpability are engaging when carried by characters plagued by them, but less so when delivered in a straightforward address. Here There Are Blueberries is strongest when its ensemble members inhabit these characters: A German man who recognizes his grandfather in one of the photographs; another whose family lied to him about their history, and who finds his life in a violent tailspin when he discovers the truth; a woman in the camp’s front office, a helferin, testifying about what she did and did not know from answering the phones; a Hungarian Jewish survivor who arrived at Auschwitz a day after the album’s first photo is dated. Stahlmann is most affecting when she steps into the role of the latter survivor, Lili Jacob, though Kaufman somewhat undercuts her power by having her remain seated throughout her monologue.

These personalized moments are too few in Blueberries, which supposes the audience will be as interested in archival work as they are in uncovering mysteries of the Holocaust itself. The design elements help immerse us in this world, with David Bengali’s projections highlighting details and making the photos larger than life. The ease with which the archivists identify the people in the album is likely sped up for the dramatization — as they point out later, many Nazis changed their surnames after the war to avoid prosecution — but one mystery is never solved: the true identity of the man who donated the album, whose multiple passports are found after his death. Is it possible that the man who selflessly donated this album was a Nazi himself? My heart pounded as I considered this turn of events, that the album’s appearance was some sort of confession. Then I felt sickened with myself for treating the question of the man as a cheap plot device. Were these not real people, was this not real suffering, that I was now intrigued by like it was a whodunnit? The script drops this plot with no further interrogation.

Kathleen Chalfant, Erika Rose, Nemuna Ceesay, Elizabeth Stahlmann, Scott Barrow, Grant James Varjas, and Charlie Thurston in Here There Are Blueberries at New York Theatre Workshop. Photo Credit: Matthew Murphy

At the end of the show, we are reminded by the museum’s photography collection director, Judy Cohen (Kathleen Chalfant), of the camera’s power to manipulate through the “double crop,” the moment in time that excludes the before and after and the framing of the shot. “We don’t see what’s left outside the frame,” Cohen says. The statement is made more prescient and awkward by the reality of our moment, in which tens of thousands lie dead in Gaza while Americans debate the use and context of the word “genocide.” Here There Are Blueberries speaks to this tension without naming it directly, in part because the script’s final pronouncements about the beginnings of genocide lack depth and in part because of the three walls of the theater.

New York Theatre Workshop has been sweating under the heat of the spotlight for not putting out a statement calling for a ceasefire in Gaza after a former resident playwright, Victor I. Cazares, demanded so during a strike of their HIV medication. Some patrons may be unaware of this offstage scrutiny, but even without such media attention, Here There Are Blueberriesstill begs for modern engagement, some acknowledgment of the genocides that have taken place since the discovery of the photo album, some resource for audiences who leave feeling helpless. Much of the story can avoid this conflict due to the nature of the evidence discussed: The photos are old and water-logged, and some of the only ones we have from Auschwitz. Witnesses and survivors were not cataloging violence on smartphones and uploading footage to the whole world on social media. For much of the show, the specificity of the evidence grounds the story in time. In its last-page call to action, Here There Are Blueberries thus stumbles, ineloquent in what it crops out.

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

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