In bringing Yankl on the Moon to stage, actor and playwright Jake Krakovsky had to tread carefully. His one-man play deals with the Holocaust, and he wanted to give the subject a new vision.
“In many ways people have been afraid that if you talked about the Holocaust in anything but a realistic, tragic way, you might be in danger of trivializing the event — or it might play into Holocaust denial,” he says.
But he forged ahead, creating what calls a “tragic, comic Holocaust folk tale.”
“There were some risks,” he says. “This goes against the prescribed way. But for me, this is the only way that made sense.”
Yankl, an independent work running through February 22 at the Alliance Theatre’s Black Box, incorporates unexpected elements such as dance, clowning, music, poetry and physical comedy.
The Atlanta native, 23, developed the play as part of his Emory University honors thesis, which looked at the Holocaust in the 21st century. Fellow student Emily Kleypas worked with him to stage a workshop performance just before he graduated in May. She is the play’s producer; their friend Seth Langer directs.
Joseph Skibell’s novel A Blessing on the Moon, which tells a Holocaust story in a nontraditional way, was an inspiration, but Krakovsky draws directly on an ancient folkloric tradition of Eastern European / Jewish heritage that relies on wordplay, foolishness and comic absurdity. The characters in these stories are the foolish residents of Chelm (the name of a real town in Poland).
Yankl tells tales about his fellow villagers, all of whom perished but him. “It’s a survival tactic — talking about people and keeping them alive that way,” says Krakovsky, who plays more than a dozen characters, including Yankl, three rabbis, various villagers and the Angel of Death.
“Through those familiar stories, [my play] grapples with the historical reality of the Holocaust, in a way specifically for contemporary Jews,” he says. “It is a story about the Holocaust but also very much a story about forming Jewish identity in a post-Holocaust world, for the third generation of Jews.”
Comedy is an important part of the production. “Jewish humor has often been dark owing to the Jewish people’s never-ending attempt to escape persecution,” he says.
The Westminster alum used comedy not just as relief but to get people to think differently. “There is a tendency to let the Holocaust be the end-all and be-all of modern Jewish identity. I think that is dangerous.”
Krakovsky’s grandfather is a Holocaust survivor who later wrote a book about his ordeal. That’s one reason Krakovsky chose this project.
“He has an amazing story. He was never in a camp proper, but when he was 19 years old Gestapo agents arrived and took his parents away. He spent the entirety of World War II on the run in Nazi-controlled Berlin, hiding out with people who hid them in their basement. He was captured in makeshift prisons and escaped.
“It’s a direct and powerful flesh and blood connection. I know his story. I know that people in his life were murdered. The very fact of my existence is miraculous given how much he went through and how many opportunities he had to lose his life. That he made it to Atlanta is miraculous.”
His grandfather has advanced Alzheimer’s; many survivors are dead or losing their memories. “It feels like an important time to tell these stories,” he says. “In 10 years there may not be any survivors around.”
Krakovsky, who hopes to take his show on the road, believes that Yankl can speak to a broad audience. “What is incredible about theater is that you can tell a specific story and still have a universal appeal,” he says.
“I want to talk to young Jews to grapple with their heritage, but I do want to reach people who aren’t Jewish, people who don’t know these stories. I think this is a story many people can relate to.”
Click for tickets here.