The Cabaret that Almost Was

In Cabaret, the Emcee is always watching, always scheming; a monstrous, yet sensuous, all-knowing theater god who has been pulling the strings of his Cabaret puppets since the beginning, and we only realize this when it’s too late. Robert Kopf's flamboyant, lecherous, and yet tasteful way of performing physical comedy in this role gave out Charlie Chaplin vibes at first, but then the performance morphed into a seductively disturbing Leda-and-the-swan scenario, wherein the Emcee represented Zeus in swan form and the rest of the characters (and the audience) became Leda. We shiver as the Emcee lurks on the balcony, privy to "private" moments shared by Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz. The Emcee's violent and monstrous penetration of the privacy of the other characters makes sense when you recall the scene at the end of Act I where we hear Hitler’s voice and hear the sound of marching feet, and the Emcee stands Center Stage. In that moment, I understand why the Emcee’s omnipresence fills the audience with dread; he is the play’s character representation of Hitler.

It is Hitler who is always watching, always scheming to carry out a deadly plan to “make Germany great again.” It is Hitler who is monstrous, yet sensuous, as he beguiles the German people, making them believe that his sinister plan was actually the sunny yellow brick road to an Aryan Oz and not genocide. It is Hitler who has been pulling the strings of his Cabaret puppets since the beginning, and we only realize this when it’s too late. And it is Hitler who dances around with a gorilla in a dress (yes, it was Sarah Kostoryz inside that suit) in a vaudevillian dance number, while everyone looks on horrified. He sings her praises while lamenting that no one else sees her beauty. The end of the song reveals that the gorilla is actually a Jew. Suddenly, all of the pieces fit. To me, the character Robert Kopf portrayed on the DFPH stage wasn’t simply the Emcee, he was Emcee Hitler. And as the characters went about their daily lives, he took over Germany, seeming to whisper “U Can’t Touch This” to an audience powerless and unable to intervene in the horror unfolding before their very eyes. Wow. What a provocative, profound and emotionally charged performance! (Congratulations and well done, cast.)

Yet, for me and likely, for the rest of the audience, the emotional experience of Cabaret did not end at curtain. An ominous feeling stuck with me for hours after the performance. As I reflected on this afterward, I remembered some dark details of my family history that absolutely blew me away. To give you some context, my great-grandmother Hanna Oplatka Schultz is from the Czech Republic. When she lived there, it was part of Austria-Hungary, but by 1931, it was a country called Czechoslovakia. She was a Jew. Although the Czechoslovak Republic broke into Bohemia and Moravia before the second World War began, allowing some Jews to escape during the Holocaust, the Nazi party and their collaborators “killed approximately 263,000 Jews who had resided in the territory” known as Czechoslovakia (according to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.) When my great-grandmother Hanna was very young, she some of her family immigrated to the United States in 1912, passing the Statue of Liberty and being processed at Ellis Island. However, all the relatives who stayed in Czechoslovakia weren’t as lucky. The Nazis imprisoned them in a concentration camp called Terezin, where all of them died but one young cousin.

Hanna Oplatka, on the other hand, grew up in Chicago, became a secretary, married a German printing press operator named Eugene Schultz, and they lived happily into their late 90s. The irony of this situation had not struck me until just now, in this moment, as I reflect on Cabaret. Had my grandmother’s family stayed in Bohemia, and had my grandfather’s family stayed in Germany, it is possible Eugene and his family would have murdered Hanna and hers in the Holocaust. Even if one of the families, the Oplatkas or the Schultzes, had not migrated, my grandmother would never have been born, my mom and her four siblings would never have existed, and I would have never had the chance to aportar mi granito de arena. I would not have been given the opportunity to contribute my little grain of sand to make the world a better place.

Now I find memories of my great-grandparents running like an old film reel in my brain: memories of times I spent with them while they were still alive and memories of mourning their deaths after they left us. I remember playing dominoes with my little 4’8” Czech great-grandma (“G.G,” as we called her) and my blue-eyed, German great-grandpa we christened “Oompa” with his plaid suit coat. I remember making them little notes on colored paper slips to draw out of a glass jar and read every day. I remember hearing Hanna make up these little songs based on whatever we were doing at the moment, the best of which was “twist my juniper, baby,” a ditty she sang as we sat in the garden one summer afternoon. I remember eating sour-sweet lemon drops that tasted like melancholy from a cut crystal dish and doing crosswords with my pun-loving word nerd of an Oompa, a twinkle in his eye and the end of a pencil in his mouth. I am a fourth-generation immigrant, and I bear the weight of the cabaret that never was; the cabaret that, in a twist of fate, could have ruined my ancestors; and the cabaret that actually happened, killing millions and enabling my existence.

G.G, young Carlina (in full ballet attire), and Oompa

On the other side of my family, my great-great grandfather Martin Anderson was a Norwegian shiphand. When his ship docked on the East Coast of the U.S., he jumped ship and swam to Virginia Beach. I am the great-great-granddaughter of a man who, 20 years ago, some Americans would have called "a wetback." Looking back to this complicated ancestry, which I am only just beginning to understand in its complexity, I see an answer to a question that’s been on my mind for days. “How can I answer my calling to advocate for the immigrant community in a way that recognizes how my privilege gives me a voice but also recognizes my potential to silence immigrant voices by speaking over them? How can I, as a middle-class white person who attends Davidson College, speak in support of undocumented immigrants while not speaking in their place?” I am constantly reminded that I am not one of them, and I cannot speak as if their experiences were my own, but I also feel moved to speak on their behalf. “How do I navigate this duality?” I could not find these answers on my own, so I started actively trying to listen for wisdom that the Davidson community could impart to me. Cabaret led me to one answer to this question buried deep in my family history.

Even though my family and I have ridden on the privileges of White America, we became white after immigrating to the U.S., losing our accents, and working under the table. My family history is a story of the American Dream: of coming to the U.S. and pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps to eventually achieve success, to ensure that we and our children live comfortable lives. I am far enough removed from this history that I could ignore it and bask in my white privilege, and to be honest, my life would be a lot easier and my career a lot more lucrative if I did so. Yet, I feel called to something more. I want to live into the legacy I have inherited from my immigrant forebears. I want to resist that easy path I could take where I ignore social justice issues and revel in the opportunities provided by the whiteness my family has acquired over five generations. I want to instead struggle with and for those who don’t have the luxury of choosing an easy path. And I must recognize that even as I intentionally run alongside my friends and neighbors while they travel on dirt paths towards the American Dream, I am still running on the paved road of my privilege. My ancestors ran on the dirt roads of struggle like immigrants do today, and they paved the way for me. But I can use the pavement and the privilege I have now to advocate for immigrants so the system doesn't prevent them from paving roads towards comfort and success.

Oompa with two of his great-granddaughters, Carlina and Jodie

Recently, I have watched as God has paved the way for me to act on my passion for immigrant rights and opportunities activism. God has been building bridges in my life, connecting me with people and opportunities that serve as avenues to engaging in his work of reconciliation through intercultural relations and advocacy. First, God has given me the chance to approach immigrant challenges from the administrative side as I work with a municipal government official. In February, I began managing the public relations for a representative of Charlotte City Council in turn for the chance to advocate in the speeches I write for policies that support undocumented immigrant rights and opportunities. This public servant and I are united in a common purpose: fostering economic mobility, social justice, and unity in the face of a divided society with unequal levels of privilege. This summer, I hope to continue this partnership, engaging in social justice work with this representative as we harness the power of words to influence policy and public opinion. Next fall, a team of Davidson students and faculty will be launching a dinner dialogue program at the International House in Charlotte that connects us with local Latin American immigrants to build relationships and ultimately create a documentary to use for advocacy with local government officials, nonprofit organizations, and community members.

Our Charlotte Immigrant - Davidson Student Intercultural Program was born out of an enormous need in the Queen City, the South, and in the broader United States for positive conversations with, for, and about immigrants. Both documented and undocumented urban immigrants often hesitate to contact federal or local government officials because of language barriers, and, increasingly, are afraid to draw attention to themselves in the current political climate. Where there is no nonprofit intervention, their voices may remain unheard and their issues inadequately addressed by local authorities and policy-makers. Today, immigrants are frequently ignored, marginalized, and actively oppressed by government and society. There’s an old Mexican proverb that says “They tried to bury us. They didn’t know we were seeds.” In this project, we see recognize our collective history as a nation of immigrants. In this project, we see ourselves and our Latin American immigrant neighbors in Charlotte as seeds with both the potential for inner change and growth and the potential to change the environment around us.

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