Wendy Williams-Blackshaw wasn't allowed to see her daughter’s dress rehearsals for the upcoming play, "And A Child Shall Lead." Once she was in the auditorium, but her 11-year-old, Bella, promptly told her to close her eyes and then shooed her out. Even so, Williams-Blackshaw knows already that acting in a play about Jewish children in the Holocaust has had an impact on her sixth-grader.
“She’s asked us about it,” the mother said. “What’s curious to her – and I think it’s because she’s grown up in this 24-7 media world – is how the Germans could not have known what was going on. People were so isolated. They were fed propaganda and that is what they believed. It’s so completely different from anything we experience today. And yet what we emphasize to her is: this wasn’t that long ago.”
The Youth Performance Company hoped it would open eyes – both for its performers and for audiences – with the selection of the play. (The show is a contrast to the company’s holiday production of Reindeer Line about Santa’s reindeer selection process.) The story is about a group of children living in Terezin, a holding town for Jewish people before they were moved to death camps. There are plenty of light moments as the characters play, study, make art and write an underground newspaper, but the production is serious in its tone, said Jacie Knight, the founder and artistic director of the company. Two characters are shot for their actions during the performance, which is intended for ages 10 and up.
Nineteen shows have been scheduled, starting with this morning's opening performance and continuing through Feb. 26. Many are during weekdays for school groups.
Knight said her cast meets the original desire of the playwright for diverse actors – a visual signal that genocide and mistreatment of children still exist globally. As part of the rehearsal process, the actors watched a film on genocide and heard a presentation on the subject and on the history of Terezin. 
“It’s kind of a building process of helping them understand,” Knight said. “It’s hard for anyone to wrap their heads around this, because it’s so hard to believe.”
Terezin is a fortress town in the current Czech Republic; roughly 150,000 Jews were detained there from 1942 to 1945. By some estimates, fewer than 200 of 15,000 children at Terezin survived. The children at Terezin were taught to paint and draw as a form of communication and coping. Thousands of child poems and drawings survived, creating a historical record of the life and treatment of Jews there.
Bella Blackshaw said her role in the play – as an 8-year-old named Jana – has been eye-opening. Bella has been acting most of her life, but often with lighter parts in productions such as Annie and the Wizard of Oz at the Children’s Theater. Her character doesn't really understand that it is unusual to live in oppression and tries to make the best of things.
Bella Blackshaw

Bella Blackshaw

"It's definitely a change of pace," Bella said of the role. "Its kind of a challenge for me and I really like that."
Scarlett Thompson, 13, plays a much more brooding character -- a girl named Alena who is distraught by her separation from her mother and then the killing of a friend. Thompson said the audience's reaction will tell a lot about whether the depth of the subject is sinking in.
Thompson knew the basic history of the Holocaust, but said she learned a lot through the rehearsals and preparation for the play. She was astounded to learn how the real children of Terezin stayed resilient.
"They still managed to bring art and humanity into their lives," she said, "while they were mistreated so horribly."
Williams-Blackshaw is eager to see how the actors pull it off -- given Bella's insistence that she not linger for rehearsals.
"I don't like them getting any sneak peaks," Bella said of her parents.

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