Review: Roger Guenveur Smith’s ‘Otto Frank’ is a meditation on the dark history of hatred
by Carol Canter with photos by Jay Yamada
The recent hour spent with “Otto Frank,” as performed by Roger Guenveur Smith in a solo show at the Magic Theatre, is agonizing and mesmerizing, painful and enlightening, and all too real. While in tough times like ours today I may tend to turn away from “too much reality,” I had been so captivated in my youth by The Diary of Anne Frank that I grabbed the chance to “get to know” her father Otto Frank, the family’s sole survivor.
The play is a conversation with Frank’s younger daughter Anne, who perished along with her sister Margot in the Nazi death camp Bergen Belsen in 1945. Their mother Edith perished at Auschwitz.
Seated at a table, microphone in hand, Smith weaves together a history of hatred through the centuries in barely a whisper. The set is minimalist, the lighting low, the music ethereal, the voice incantatory. We are transfixed, as we are led to very dark places — the Middle Passage of slave ships from Africa, Japanese internment camps, the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. where a guard was killed by a white supremacist in 2009, and to the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, VA in 2017. That such hate crimes continue, even escalate, long after the death of Otto Frank in 1980, makes this performance piece tragically timeless and all too relevant.
Poignant moments standout. Black GIs weeping as they come face to face with the horror of a concentration camp they have come to liberate. A WW2 veteran who explains to Frank why his segregated Japanese-American 442nd Regiment Combat Team became the most decorated unit for its size, embodying the slogan “Go For Broke,” even while their families at home were interned.
Berkeley-born writer/performer Roger Guenveur Smith, speaks of the origins of his OTTO FRANK:
“I was invited to Amsterdam to perform a solo piece called ‘Rodney King’ and the first place that I went was the Anne Frank house. And I was able to absorb there what I had only ever been able to imagine: this man returning from the war, to silence. To an empty room which had been full. That experience that Rodney King — of all people- took me to has continued to influence me and hopefully to inspire and to bless this particular project. And we know a lot of and about Anne Frank, his daughter. But we don’t know a lot about him, Otto Frank, her father. The survivor. Who lost his wife and two daughters in the Nazi Death Camps. It was he who gave Anne that diary on her 13th birthday and it was he who impossibly received it again. It was him who struggled through months to read it. And it was he that decided to share it with the world.” (From an interview with the Temple Israel of Hollywood.)
Smith is known for a prolific career in tv and film, highlighted by his long collaboration with Spike Lee for over 30 years in films from Malcom X to Do the Right Thing. His solo performance pieces have embodied Frederick Douglas, Bob Marley and others. Two, A Huey P. Newton Story and Rodney King, were filmed by Spike Lee and released as telefilms for streaming.
Smith’s longtime award-winning collaboration with singer-songwriter Marc Anthony Thompson, creator of the musical collective Chocolate Genius, continues here in the current production of Otto Frank.
What: Campo Santo, the Magic Theatre’s new Home Resident Company presents the premiere run in a limited engagement of Otto Frank, created and performed by Roger Guenveur Smith, with live sound design by Marc Anthony Thompson.
Dates: March 12–27.
Playing Schedule: Saturdays at 8pm; Sundays at 3pm & 8pm. Each performance will be followed by a post-show discussion with Roger Guenveur Smith.
Prices: $20 — $70
Running Time: Otto Frank will run approximately 60 minutes.
Venue: The Magic Theatre, Fort Mason: 2 Marina Blvd., Building D, 3rd Floor. San Francisco, CA. 94123.
Tickets: Online at MagicTheatre.org. By phone at (415) 441–8822.