Two recent productions have put life stories on stage in a big way. Playing at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater through March 5, The Book of Joseph follows three generations of Joseph Hollander’s family, from pre-World War II Poland to present-day America, focused on secrets locked in a suitcase in Hollander’s attic. When his son, Richard, uncovers the suitcase, he finds more than just Swastika-stamped letters and legal documents, he finds a family he never met, and a father’s legacy that was never mentioned. A reviewer for the Chicago Tribune described the story as a “wave of emotions.”
Actor George Takei shares his family’s story in a similar way with the musical Allegiance, (first on Broadway and now as a limited-release film) which tells the story of Japanese-Americans, including members of his own family, who were relocated to internment camps in the U.S. during World War II.
What Do These Stories Tell Us?
We all may not want to create a stage play from our life story, but critics writing about The Book of Joseph and Allegiance recognize how these productions underscore the value in saving our life stories. The critics use the same words and phrases we use when describing our work as personal historians: the stories are powerful, they offer intense emotions, and they provide insight into the nature of those who came before us. Isn’t that one of the reasons we save our family stories? We need to learn how our ancestors got through hard, almost impossible times in their own lives.
Richard Hollander also told his family’s story in the book, Every Day Lasts a Year.
As personal historians, we search for ways to connect generations and save family stories, whether those stories are well known or have been hidden away for generations. Perhaps some of the audience for The Book of Joseph and Allegiance will come away wondering about their own family stories and how they can be saved for future generations. A first step is to seek out a professional personal historian, a member of the Association of Personal Historians, who can help uncover the stories and preserve them in a variety of formats—maybe even for the stage.
And what do you think? Would your family’s life story make a good stage production? Tell us about it in your comment below.
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