In updated 'Dear Finder,' playwright wrestles with appropriation
It has been 20 years since University of Minnesota Duluth theater professor Tom Isbell and a team of student researchers and actors premiered what would become an award-winning play about the Holocaust.
He's still not sure he is comfortable with it.
An updated take on the documentary-style play "Dear Finder" opens at the university's Mainstage Theatre today — and the rewrite includes recurring scenes in which a playwright wrestles with the subject during an interview with a television journalist. The 90-minute drama includes raw vignettes from the Holocaust: Hitler's rise to power, the quest for a master race, the refugees aboard the S.S. St. Louis who were rejected by other countries — including the United States, and Jews burying dead Jews before being buried themselves.
"It's not my story to tell," the playwright tells an interviewer in an early scene, set in present day.
Isbell isn't Jewish. None of the original student co-writers or actors from the 1998 production were Jewish. They tried to honor the people's stories, Isbell said, and stay sensitive to appropriation.
"There's always been, somewhere in the back of my mind, slight discomfort," he said. "Maybe we shouldn't charge in and tell everyone's stories. I'm posing these questions in the play."
'DEAR FINDER' FLASHBACK
Isbell, then an assistant professor at UMD, was looking for a playwriting project in the mid-1990s. He was appalled at his own lack of knowledge about the Holocaust, he said, so he decided to dig in. He was awarded an $8,500 grant to work with students on the play.
Isbell spent his spring break at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., where he dug through diaries, letters and oral histories. He gathered a team of students — Valerie Buel, Denise Dawson, Jamison Haase, Kourtney Kaas, Julie MacIver, Andrew Nelson and Julie Unulock — to help with research and writing.
They would study the subject, meet and discuss, write — then meet again the next day to do it again — for five weeks.
"Dear Finder" opened in mid-October 1998. The News Tribune called it "one of the finest and most gripping plays of recent decades" to play at the university.
"The world premiere of 'Dear Finder' ... not only confronts the playgoer with a personal and intimate reality of the Holocaust," reviewer Paul Brissett wrote, "but it traces a direct link to man's capacity for hate that even today poisons Duluth and the rest of the world."
"Dear Finder" was Pegah Kadkhodaian's first play at UMD. Then a freshman, she recalled being in a "space of reverence for the material."
"For us, it was about becoming educated and really learning more, as much as it was about educating and conveying that to the public," she said. "There was also this real sense of the magic and the beauty and the resilience of the human spirit."
The play captured national attention. It was one of seven selected for the American College Theatre Festival in Ames, Iowa. At the time, the festival chairman Gregg Henry called it a "stunning piece of theater."
"Its topic matter certainly is devastating," he told the News Tribune, "but when you see it wrapped up into a piece of potent theater, I think it's just what theater is about."
The play then advanced to the National Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival in Washington, D.C., where then U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar caught a performance.
"It was a compelling, gripping and just riveting performance," the late-Oberstar said at the time.
This weekend, the show's alumni — both from the 1998 production and the 2008 re-staging — will have a reunion. Kadkhodaian, who will be in town, described "Dear Finder" as one of those plays that changes an actor and forever unites a cast.
"It was such an experience for all of us to go through it," she said. "We were all so emotionally charged by it and affected by it."
For Kadkhodaian, it defined what she wanted as her "theatrical imprint on the world." She wanted to educate, shift awareness, present new perspectives. After spending time in theater, she is now a transformational life coach.
Serena Brook, a regular on the St. Paul-based public radio variety show "Live from Here," was in UMD's 2008 production of "Dear Finder," and also described her experience as "life changing."
"I still think of it as a time that I got to experience art in a different and new level," she said.
As for Isbell, Holocaust themes are part of the trilogy of dystopia novels that started with "The Prey," which was published in 2015.
"I guess I keep thinking about these things," he said.
NOW, ABOUT THAT STORY
The playwright and the interviewer characters in the new version of "Dear Finder" represent Isbell's own internal dialogue, and how he has come to be OK-ish with telling this story.
"You did the play," the interviewer says in a scene. "So at some point you must have changed your mind."
"The teeth," the playwright tells the interviewer. "I changed my mind when I read about the teeth."
Spoiler alert: The story of the teeth, teased throughout the show, comes late in the play.
Kadkhodaian said she was glad to hear the play was being produced again and that she wishes it wasn't as timely of a piece as it is.
"Theatrical works like this are necessary to keep us awake" she said.
Brook said she remembered Isbell talking about appropriation, and she's glad he added the playwright and the interviewer to the script.
"That's another layer to the show," she said. "Who tells the stories, whose job it is to tell the stories and why. I never had any doubt that it's anybody's story to tell as long as it's being told in the right way and in a purposeful way."
Beyond the teeth, a few things have put the real-live playwright at ease, including the response from the community — which expressed gratitude at having the stories told.
"I think it's OK because we have to hear these stories," Isbell said. "We have to learn these lessons, and we've done such a bad job at learning these lessons."
IF YOU GO
What: University of Minnesota Duluth's production of "Dear Finder" by Tom Isbell, Valerie Buel, Denise Dawson, Jamison Haase, Kourtney Kaas, Julie MacIver, Andrew Nelson and Julie Unulock
When: 7:30 p.m. Oct. 11-13 and Oct. 17-20; 2 p.m. Oct. 14
Where: Marshall Performing Arts Center's Mainstage Theatre, UMD
Tickets: $21 adult, $16 senior and UMD faculty/staff/veteran, $10 student, $8 UMD student