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In 'Otto Frank,' Roger Guenveur Smith Compares the Incomparable

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An African American man loos skyward ata desk and microphone
Roger Guenveur Smith in 'Otto Frank' at Magic Theatre in San Francisco. (Jay Yamada)

In a 1967 article entitled “Negroes are Anti-Semitic Because They’re Anti-White,” James Baldwin cautioned against loosely comparing trauma: “One does not wish to be told by an American Jew that his suffering is as great as the American Negro’s suffering. It isn’t, and one knows that it isn’t from the very tone in which he assures you that it is.”

Despite Baldwin’s caution, the desire to compare Black and Jewish experiences has resulted in a litany of dramatic explorations. Peaking in the late 1980s and early ’90s, when so-called “Black-Jewish relations” became strained, these works have had uneven legacies. Some—like Alfred Uhry’s Driving Miss Daisy—were outright offensive in their tokenism and stereotype; others—like Anna Deavere Smith’s Fires in the Mirror—have endured for their innovative exploration of dramatic form.

The latest iteration of this comparative impulse is Roger Guenveur Smith’s one-man show, Otto Frank, playing at the Magic Theater in San Francisco through March 29. Smith, well-known from his roles in Spike Lee’s films, is also one of our era’s great solo performers. Having previously embodied Frederick Douglass, Huey P. Newton, and Rodney King, Smith teams up here with longtime collaborator Marc Anthony Thompson—better known as Chocolate Genius Inc.—to produce an hour of intimate, yet emotionally monotone, theater.

An African American man makes a 'shhhh' gesture into a microphone
Roger Guenveur Smith in ‘Otto Frank’ at Magic Theatre in San Francisco. (Jay Yamada)

Like Smith’s other plays, Otto Frank is both history lesson and eulogy. Smith portrays Otto, sole survivor of the Frank family and publisher of his daughter’s famed diary, as haunted by guilt and sorrow. The staging in this thrust theater is beautifully minimalist, populated only by a single desk, chair, and microphone. We are both, it seems, inside the Franks’ “secret annexe,” at the table that Anne fought to claim as writing space in her July 13, 1943 entry, but also in some kind of Beckettian bardo state. Frank speaks to his daughter from beyond the grave, narrating the circumstances of his life, bearing witness to her death, and lamenting the state of the world since his own passing in 1980.

Smith’s portrayal brims with intensity. He sits with monk-like meditativeness for an hour, arms outstretched and eyes wide open. I can count on one finger the number of times I noticed him blink. The resonant overtones of Thompson’s glassy accompaniment shake the walls and interrupt the oration. In these musical interludes, Smith pauses the history lesson and breaks out into puppet-like gestures, melodious song, and one final, chilling scream.

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But unlike Smith’s other work, Otto Frank gives us very little of the emotional truth behind the facts. His attempt to critique a rigid masculinity that dares not to cry, even in private, ultimately produces its own rigidity. The oration stays mainly in one vocal register, and the language is constrained by clichés. When Smith counts up slowly from one to six, for instance, and then that six becomes six million, the delivery is supposed to translate the gravity of mass death. But it doesn’t, and not because that gravity can’t be felt, but—echoing Baldwin—because of the very tone in which he assures us that it can.

An African American man at a desk points his finger aloft to make a dramatic point
Roger Guenveur Smith in ‘Otto Frank’ at Magic Theatre in San Francisco. (Jay Yamada)

This may be the most noticeable gap between the page and the stage: Smith never quite conveys the emotional nuance—the tragedy and the levity—that Anne Frank’s own diary conveys. There were times when the generationally and racially diverse crowd on opening night did react viscerally, as when he scoffs at the very idea of an Anne Frank gift shop. But these moments were few and far between. I’m left thinking: given one last chance to reach out, would a father ever speak to his daughter in this way?

Otto Frank does raise a series of other important questions: what does it mean for a Holocaust survivor to bear witness to anti-Semitism today? Are we too focused on the dead at the expense of the living? Is it necessary, or obscene, to forgive the oppressor? But the play never stays with these questions long enough to have us thinking critically about them. Smith is constantly comparing European anti-Semitism to other genocidal histories: the Middle Passage, Wounded Knee, even la migra. But in its desire to be comprehensive, the play ultimately feels incoherent.

The speed with which it moves between these comparisons also ends up solidifying the very categories of “Black” and “Jew” that Smith’s cross-racial portrayal of Otto Frank could have complicated. Because Smith is African-American and because Otto Frank was a white, European Jew, I kept asking myself: how do mixed-race, Black Jews navigate the overlapping legacies of the Holocaust and trans-Atlantic slavery? If the figure of Otto Frank must be a vehicle to explore the contemporary, as the whole premise of the play suggests it must, unpacking that question could have pulled the play out of the nineties and into the twenty-first century.

It is important to make comparisons between genocidal impulses, historical atrocities, and diasporic communities across time and space. But the point is not to flatten but to sharpen the differences. That is one of the Baldwin essay’s more lasting truths, one that Smith’s play fails to heed. Baldwin is not telling us to stop comparing, but to compare more carefully.

‘Otto Frank’ runs through March 27 at Magic Theatre in San Francisco. Details here.

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