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The costume seemed so unimposing. Heavily polished black dress shoes shining the stage lights, black dress slacks, a khaki shirt, a long, black over coat and a deceptively beautiful officerÕs cap. The shirt, cap and overcoat were adorned with emblems of a time almost past, images and symbols now of nearly unimaginable violence, suffering and hatred.
It was the uniform I was to wear as a Nazi in the play ÒDear Esther.Ó It is adorned with swastikas, SS thunderbolts, and a facsimile of the deathÕs head. Red, white and black swastika armbands grab large swaths of my arms.
As I put it on, the stiffness of the tight khaki Òbrown shirtÓ and the constriction of dress shoes caused my back to stiffen up and straighten out. These implements drew my body into a rigid form that was nearly alien to me.
Once in the costume, we ran the Chorus of Hate, which opens the play. The cast spews hate words, building up to an anti-Semitic attack on Young Esther, dressed in concentration camp grays and the yellow Star of David. Playing the part of the Nazi officer, I approach and dismiss the other characters, and unleash a barrage of degrading attacks on the young character. I kick her, I call her Jude, and I put a cigarette out in the palm of her hand.
This is a scene we had rehearsed numerous times. But something happened in that first dress rehearsal. My tone took on an ominous, venomous edge. The word ÒJudeÓ took on a violent intent not there before. My actions struck more deeply.
I found myself walking off stage, tears forming in my eyes, and a ball of vomit and bile crawling up my throat. The cast, crew and director praised the performance, but I was troubled by my own response. My own acting had made me sick.
I began reflecting on my response. And then it dawned on me.
As an actor and director, a large part of my medium of story telling is found in the symbols and pictures I put on the stage. I use symbols regularly in my directing to underscore the story, to highlight a particularly key moment in a script. Often, I turn to the image of the cross from my own Christian ideology.
In this production, I realized, I was the symbol. I was adorned with those violent images of Nazism and every time I looked upon my own body, my own self, I realized I was anathema to my own beliefs. The symbols and symbolism I embodied were in direct contradiction to the work I, as a gay man, have done over the past decade to overcome hate and violence.
I realized my response was of fear and revulsion to the hate and violence, and the fact I could not escape those images. They were there, constantly glaring at me in silent testimony. I was one of the very things I despised the very most. I was hatred embodied.
My presence in such symbolism was necessary to telling the story truthfully. As Esther says in the play, ÒThe truth is the ultimate weapon.Ó And the truth is, the swastika and associated images were the truth of the horrors of the Holocaust.
I could continue to carry the psychic violence of seeing myself adorned in those symbols, or I could act in another way.
I needed a ritual, a way to turn the symbols from their negative to a positive.
So each day, as I don the uniform, I say a little prayer. In remembrance of those lost to hate — whether in the Holocaust, Bosnia, Rwanda, DarfurÉ the list goes on, but the hate is the same.
I honor Esther Terner Raab and the millions of others who are nameless and faceless to me. I pay homage to the sufferings of people I will never know, I acknowledge the hero that is there in all of us. I find as I say these prayers of remembrance, I gather my strength and courage to stand witness to the violence the symbols I wear represent.
I acknowledge that without their presence, we could not tell the world that hate is not acceptable.