Most of the time it feels like a majority of the people in Charlotte aren’t actually from Charlotte. They moved here from Ohio, New York or somewhere else in North Carolina. Sometimes, theater here can feel the same way. Broadway shows travel through on their national tours. Local theater companies produce bold re-imaginings of shows originally written and produced elsewhere. In my three years here as a theater critic, I’ve only seen two shows that premiered in Charlotte. But “Protective Custody PRISONER 34042," produced by Three Bone Theatre, stands alone. It’s a show written, directed and premiering in Charlotte. Beyond that, it’s about a leader in the Charlotte community, Dr. Susan Cernyak-Spatz (Leslie Giles), who came to America after surviving the Holocaust. She became a German professor at UNC Charlotte and frequently holds public speaking events about her experiences as a survivor and how to teach about the Holocaust.
“Protective Custody PRISONER 34042” is adapted from Cernyak-Spatz’s memoir of the same name and follows her life from childhood, to the Theresienstadt ghetto, to the Birkenau death camp, and eventually, her escape from it. “Protective Custody,” staged intimately with only two actresses, utilizes a rack of clothes to convey this passage of time. Cernyak-Spatz narrates her story to the audience, changing in front of them as she does so. This device works expertly, as it becomes clear that she is fond and proud of her clothing. When it is ripped from her and then assigned and severely limited by the Nazis, it is heartbreaking. The play makes clear how the Holocaust stole even the little things from Cernyak-Spatz, such as the freedom to dress oneself. The setup also emphasizes the vulnerability Cernyak-Spatz displays to the audience. She bares it all as she changes in front of us, both metaphorically and literally.
Going into “Protective Custody,” I was nervous. I expected a larger stage show, dramatizing the events of Cernyak-Spatz’s life, one with elaborate sets and an extended cast (or at least more than two people). An attempt to place the viewer into the past, hoping that understanding can come from experiencing the disturbing truth. “Protective Custody” does not do this. The stage design is fairly barren and lighting and sound cues are used sparingly, only at the most intense of moments. It varies between feeling like the lecture of an academic professor and a story told by a close friend. I appreciated this new take; it felt respectful and sensitive to the subject material. This is clearly intentional and assisted by the fact the director, Dennis Delamar, is a close friend of Cernyak-Spatz. Furthermore, the show remained just as impactful. The life of Cernyak-Spatz is told in a straight-forward manner; the play is compelling by virtue of the performance and content alone.
Giles is absolutely transcendent as Cernyak-Spatz. I cannot imagine how daunting it must be to take on the challenge of playing a real person, especially a person as impactful as Cernyak-Spatz. As Giles plays her, she is incredibly smart with a dry sense of humor. There are a number of tongue-in-cheek comments to the audience. The script also includes a number of personal details, beyond the horrors of Birkenau. She tells us about her relationship with her parents, her sexual awakening and her first love, whom she met in the Theresienstadt ghetto. “Protective Custody” excels at bringing Cernyak-Spatz to life on stage as a fully-realized person. Her counterpart, Paula Baldwin as The Dresser, plays every other character in the show. She’s her mother, Nazi guards, fellow prisoners and an American soldier. The chemistry and intimacy between the two makes all of it work.
The show ends on a personal note, a speech by Cernyak-Spatz to the audience. It’s the first time she directly mentions the present, and she has something to say. She’s concerned about America today, about the shootings at Emanuel AME in Charleston and at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. I saw this show only four days after the one year anniversary of the Tree of Life massacre. She also condemns family separations at the United States-Mexico border. To Cernyak-Spatz, this growing wave of hate, of the depersonalization of “the other,” feels familiar. She reminds us that the events of the Holocaust, as horrific and deeply scarring as they were, are never too far away. They impact us now. Genocide can happen again. And again. And again.