Lois Lowry’s Number the Stars centers on the friendship between Annemarie Johansen and Ellen Rosen, two 10-year-olds living in Copenhagen during the Nazi occupation of Denmark in World War II. Ellen’s family is Jewish, and when they have to flee from persecution, she stays behind with the Johansens in hiding. As part of the Danish resistance movement, non-Jews like the Johansens put their lives at risk as they try to help the Rosens and others escape to nearby Sweden.
It’s a story that carries contemporary relevance as anti-Semitism still exists and stories of immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers rotate in and out of the news cycle. But as Charleston Stage prepares to present an adaptation of Number the Stars, director Jesse Siak wants to emphasize the sense of hope that is present throughout the classic children’s book.
“It is unfortunately very, very relevant today … and it’s easy to get bogged down in all the tragedies of it that we forget about the hope. And I do believe there is hope in this situation, and the play itself highlights ” Siak says. “It seems like there’s no hope at all, but there is for our future. And I think the play is about hope and hope of making it through a difficult time, of traveling to a new place for safety, of escaping persecution and violence. But hope that we have allies out there, more than anything.”
Number the Stars is part of Charleston Stage’s Family Series, so while there are two public performances on Jan. 19 and 20, most showings are school matinees. Siak says about 5,000 students will see the play.
“They’ll see the bravery of Annemarie and her family and how it’s more important to take care of those who might be less fortunate in that time, whether it’s [because of] status or just how they were born. So this might help them kind of step up and maybe stand up for that kid who is being bullied just because they’re different,” Siak says. “And that’s what I took out of this play, not so much the terror of the situation but the hope that as a society we’ll be able to overcome it. And this play gives a big glimpse of against all odds fighting and uniting to make sure that right wins out.”
That Annemarie and Ellen have such a strong friendship despite their differences is an important takeaway, Siak adds.
“It doesn’t matter to Ellen and Annemarie that they have different beliefs or they look a little bit different. … To the kids, the differences don’t really matter,” he says. “So I think kids have the ability to recognize when someone is being treated poorly, and the real challenge is having the strength to step in and help those people, even if they’re Jewish or they’re an immigrant or a refugee or they have a different skin tone. And all of that is persecution of all different types happening today. And I think the play highlights that as a society we have the ability to step up and help these people who are different from us and who are facing a backlash just because of how they were born.”
Although Number the Stars certainly confronts the realities of a difficult period in history, “it’s not a sad story,” Siak insists.
“I think when we think of a play about the Holocaust and about World War II, we’re going to be inclined to think that it’s going to be sad and might be a downer for the family or it might create some uncomfortable conversations, so instead of putting in that work, we just avoid it,” he says. “And I want people to know that the story really is about hope, and it has funny moments and light moments. And the bond between the girls and the family is so extraordinary that you kind of forget about how awful things are and you just enjoy their relationship. There’s a lot of things going on, and it really is a show for everyone. And we’ll create some very good conversations and productive conversations, hopefully, so it’s not one to avoid.”