Are the Holocaust and slavery comparable? In Veronica Page’s new Off-Broadway play, “Prayers for the Ghetto,” a Jewish girl (Linda Wartenweiler) and two black girls (Ta’ Donna Nagle and Thais Francis) grapple with the legacy of the crimes perpetrated against their peoples — and, by extension, against all of humanity. The play moves from a Nazi-occupied ghetto during the Second World War to a drug and prostitute-afflicted Crown Heights in the 1980s, asking probing questions about forgiveness and faith.
“Prayers for the Ghetto,” which has been running off and on since October, is based on the recently published memoirs of Clifton King, a jazz singer and actor who grew up in the Black Hebrew community in Bedford Stuyvesant, where he had a bar mitzvah and celebrated the Jewish holidays. King’s grandfather was a rabbi and follower of Haile Selassie, the Ethiopian emperor who inspired African nationalist movements throughout the world.
Page, a former hair stylist who owned salons in Belgium, is best known as the author of a previous play, “The First All Black Male Dramatized Fashion Show.” For “Prayers for the Ghetto,” she said, she used Gordon Horwitz’s 2008 book, “Ghettostadt: Lodz and the Making of a Nazi City” as the basis for what she calls the play’s “most chilling scene,” in which five Jewish girls are forced at gunpoint by a Nazi soldier to tell the stories of how they were violated. This, along with the history of slavery, becomes the backdrop for the horrific stories of rape, drug addiction and other horrors in 1980s Brooklyn.
Yet many scholars have chafed at the idea that the Holocaust and slavery belong in the same moral universe. In Peter Novick’s “The Holocaust in American Life,” the historian notes that beginning in the 1960s, many blacks, resentful of American Jews’ claim to victim status, insisted on slavery as their own genocide. In doing so, they used the numbers of enslaved blacks, whom they assumed to be in the millions, who died on the way to America. This led Toni Morrison, for example, to dedicate her Nobel Prize-winning 1987 novel, “Beloved,” to the “Sixty Million and More” who died because of slavery.
Laurence Thomas, who teaches philosophy and political science at Syracuse University, is both Jewish and black. Thomas told The Jewish Week that blacks were enslaved so that they could be put to work, while Jews were killed in order to rid the world of them. “Jews were too evil to be trainable,” Thomas said. “Blacks were too dumb to be evil.” In the end, he concluded, “the Holocaust and slavery are not comparable because they involve very different kinds of suffering. What is clear, though, is that in each case the suffering is a profound form of evil.”
The playwright concedes this as well. “You can’t imagine what the Jewish people have gone through,” Page said. “Blacks have gone through a lot during slavery, but you can’t compare it — it wasn’t genocide the way it was with the Jews. They tried to take out the whole Jewish race.”
“Prayers for the Ghetto” will be performed for the final time this Sunday, Dec. 19 at 7:30 p.m. at the Producers Club, 358 W. 44th St. For tickets, $37.50-$45.50, call SmartTix at (212) 868-4444 or visit smarttix.com.