Under the Radar Review: Otto Frank

An 88-year-old white supremacist who claimed “The Diary of Anne Frank” was a hoax shot and killed a 39-year-old African American security guard at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C. This was in August, 2009, 29 years after the death at age 91 of Otto Frank, father of Anne Frank, publisher of her diary, the only member of the Frank family to survive the Holocaust.

Roger Guenveur Smith, writer and performer of the solo show “Otto Frank,” sets that incident in verse, adding details not in the original news reports: The guard had greeted his killer with “Shalom.” The museum, as a commemoration of what would have been Anne Frank’s eightieth birthday (had the Nazis not killed her when she was 16),  was planning to premiere a play that day imagining a conversation between Anne Frank and  “a boy who was murdered the summer that Disneyland opened
in a place called Money Mississippi.” (14-year-old Emmett Till, although Smith doesn’t name him.)

It is a powerful passage, one of several that briefly bring to the surface the implicit promise – and welcome timing! — of having an old Jewish man, embodiment of the ravages of antisemitism, interpreted by Smith, an African American actor and writer,  a familiar face in Spike Lee films, whose previous solo shows at the Public Theater have focused on such lives as Black Panther Huey P. Newton (now a film streaming on Starz),  L.A. police victim Rodney King (now a film on Netflix) and 19th century civil rights leader Frederick Douglass.

The passage also makes clear that  “Otto Frank” is neither exclusively nor straightforwardly an “Ottobiography” (in Smith’s coinage.) It’s an hour-long poem (with verses that frequently rhyme) that, yes, offers snippets from Otto Frank’s life, his relationship with his daughter, and his grappling with his losses and her legacy:

Inveterate correspondent
with a lost generation 
who have found in me
a surrogate father 

Would gladly trade
those one million pen pals for just two
last seen
in a sisterly embrace twisted in the snow
or so it was reported
by a reliable witness 

 But it also places Otto and Anne’s stories in a wide range of contexts that the special logic of poetry rescues from anachronism, suggesting instead resonant connections.

I hear you ask Daddy 
What is a drive by?
It is
my darling
Just another way to die 

 I found so many of the disparate verses in “Otto Frank”  admirable – evidence of a politically-informed imagination and a lyrical sensibility – that I wish “Otto Frank” had worked better for me as a whole. It wasn’t the indirection or the ricocheting that tripped me up. It was the delivery. Smith sits at a simple wood table throughout; I have no memory of his moving a muscle.That could just be a result of scenic and lighting designer Kirk Wilson’s unfortunate decision to light the table as if it’s brightly glowing, which may have had some symbolic significance that escaped me but made it tiring to look at the performer.  Smith’s frequent collaborator Marc Anthony Thompson (aka  Chocolate Genius) is credited with “live sound design,” which is a clue that it isn’t conventional music. It just as often enforced, rather than offered relief from, Smith’s voice, which on occasion crossed the line from sonorous to soporific.

 “Otto Frank,” part of the Under the Radar Festival, is at the Public Theater through January 22, 2023.

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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