Young People's Theatre, 2006

Hana’s Suitcase

By Emil Sher

A suitcase belonging to Hana Brady, a young Jewish Czech girl who perished in the Holocaust, is at the heart of a powerful, true story that unites the past and the present, Tokyo and Toronto, and two remarkable individuals: Fumiko Ishioka and George Brady. The beloved bestseller by Karen Levine is brought to life on stage in a production that has been described as “a shining example of the power to be found in theatre for young audiences.”

“On the adage of better late than never, I finally saw the smash hit Hana’s Suitcase…It is a very moving play for any age. One can appreciate how Sher understands children. He puts in humour that pleases them and lots of repetition so they understand the story… The play represents the best of what children’s theatre should be.”

Classical 96.3 FMPaula Citron

“When the play Hana’s Suitcase is performed, a wonderful thing happens. A theatre full of restless kids becomes silent within the first few scenes. And the theatre remains silent as the audience watches a group of their peers on stage doing some detective work to solve a mystery.”

The ProvinceLynn Mitges

“Sher’s script…carefully explains the complexities of European history as well as the terrible vocabulary of the Holocaust.”

The GazetteJim Burke

“Hana’s Suitcase, presenting the Holocaust in large part through the eyes of children, is as topical and poignant today as it was when first produced a decade ago. Whether you’re seeing the show for the first or fifth time, you’re sure to be moved.”

NOWJon Kaplan

“The staging of Hana’s Suitcase is magnificent…A production…willing to trust its younger viewers with visual, thematic and temporal complexity: the story involves frequent and alluring crossovers and interactions between the characters of the modern and WWII time frames.”

Eye WeeklyAndrew Braithwaite

“The inspiring thing about Sher’s play and MacInnes’s direction is the connection they draw between children across continents and generations… The second act brings the two worlds together in very moving ways.”

The Toronto StarCarly Maga

“Hana’s Suitcase is a great way to introduce the difficult topic of the Holocaust to children. I highly recommend it for kids and adults alike.”

Mooney on TheatreHeather Bellingham

“Hana’s Suitcase has everything that you want to see in a production by Young People’s Theatre… A mind-opening, indeed a mind-expanding story for youngsters…Hana’s Suitcase tells a great story with restraint and finesse.”

James Karas, Reviews and Views

“A delicate and moving introduction to Holocaust themes for children.”

The Globe and MailKate Taylor

“The scene where a photograph of the real Hana Brady flashes across the stage, behind live actors, is one of those moments in the theatre that just stops you in your tracks. A little girl. One in six million. The one-on-one identification that engages your mind and breaks your heart is what Hana’s Suitcase is all about”

Edmonton JournalLiz Nicholls

“Hana’s Suitcase balances entertainment and education wrapped in an engrossing theatrical package.”

SceneChanges.comJeniva Berger

“A charming, thought-provoking play for young audiences…A strong testament to the forces that bring people together: imagination, curiosity and hope.”

NOW Magazine Kate Pederson

“The use of masks to heighten the fear of the unknown is an excellent touch. The drama follows Hana and her Jewish family from a comfortable life in Prague to the hell of encroaching Nazism, the camps, and an eventual journey to Auschwitz. Powerful drama that will explain a lot to school-age children.”

National Public RadioJoe Pollack

“Hauntingly memorable, as symbols speak what words can’t say: the candle lit for Hana’s birthday, the stark set and young Hana riding through the present on her scooter… Audience members will lose themselves in the production… Through the book and now the play, children worldwide know about the Holocaust through Hana’s story. Now the question is, as asked by Akira, ‘How can we make sure it does not happen again?'”

London Free PressKathy Rumleski

“I knew I was going to see a play about the Holocaust… but I was certainly unprepared for how Hana’s story gripped my heart, how moved I felt, how many tears would flow, and how it still haunts me days later.”

Grand Bend StripMary Alderson

“When you open Hana’s Suitcase, be prepared to pack your brain full of mystery, history and culture… The play perfectly mixes the past and present… The two worlds are intertwined onstage, allowing the audience to be drawn into this touching tale.”

The London GazetteAnna Coutts

“A charming, poignant, youthfully high-energy production… Putting an artful, sophisticated spin on the Dora the Explorer modus operandi, the show follows Fumiko Ishioka (an effortless Mia Park) and her ever-curious and creative students Akira (the comically high-flying Allan Aquino) and Maiko (smart, feisty Stephanie Kim) as they contact Holocaust museums far and wide and try to reinvent the terrible ordeal of Hana and her family.”

Chicago Sun TimesHedy Weiss

“Younger audiences are likely to find this Chicago Children’s Theatre production painful, but it’s no less necessary because of that.”

Chicago ReaderZac Thompson

Production Details

4 Male

4 Female

Theatre for Young Audiences, AGE RECOMMENDATION: Children age 10 and up

95 minutes (including intermission)

By Emil Sher

Purchase Play Script

Production History

World premiere of Hana’s Suitcase at Young People’s Theatre in March 2006.

It has toured across Canada (London, Thunder Bay, Edmonton, Vancouver) and found a home at stages in the U.S. (St. Louis, Chicago, Milwaukee, Lexington) and Israel, where it is in repertory at Nephesh Theatre.

In fall 2015, Hana’s Suitcase was remounted at Young People’s Theatre to mark its 50th anniversary before touring to Montreal (presented by Geordie Productions) and Seattle Children’s Theatre in January 2016.

Hana’s Suitcase – Chicago Children’s Theatre

“Emil Sher’s dramatization is remarkably successful…The Japanese kids Maiko and Akira…initially see the plight of the European Jews as a kind of video game. Only gradually do they come to recognize the horror and sheer helplessness of it. They and their teacher dominate the first half; Hana, her brother, George, and their parents are silent presences. In the second act, they come to vocal life. Hana and George’s incredulity at the remorseless restrictions as the Nazis crack down…is echoed by Maiko and Akira, shocked for them and recoiling with them. Their words become interchangeable, and the ripples spread out among the Canadian children, watching from the auditorium… The re-enactment takes us all the way to Hana’s consignment to the gas chambers. It’s all handled with great tact, but no soft-pedalling.”

National PostRobert Cushman

“As any history teacher will tell you, one of the challenges of making the past interesting for kids is distance. Who cares about things that happened so far away or so long ago? Hana’s Suitcase is a story, and now a play, that closes that distance…Playwright Emil Sher bridges the immense distance between Japan and Europe, between the years 2000 and the Holocaust, with a script that is driven by the thoughts, feelings, fears and hopes of its young characters…Hana’s Suitcase works as a play because it builds connections with its audience members. We are allowed and encouraged to laugh at Akira’s egocentrism while only moments later we ask ourselves, what would it be like to watch your parents walk out the front door and never return?”

City ParentDeanne Fisher

“Hana’s Suitcase is even richer on second viewing. Emil Sher ‘s play, adapted from Karen Levine ‘s children’s book, has been revived by Lorraine Kimsa Theatre for Young People as part of a national tour. …The detective-story first act focuses on the Japanese characters piecing together facts about Hana, who early on stands silent, often surrounded by anonymous masked figures. Only in the second half do she and her family speak, as we learn their story through narration and acted-out scenes. Playwright Emil Sher and director Allen MacInnis do a marvellous job of blending the two time periods. Sometimes the Japanese children ask a question and someone from the 40’s story answers, while on occasion the two sets of characters inhabit the same space, giving the narration an elastic and dramatic vitality. The play also raises powerful questions for adults, such as how much to tell children about an event like the Holocaust.”

NOW Magazine Jon Kaplan

“Sher’s adaptation does an admirable job of weaving back and forth between the past and present. We learn Hana’s history gradually, just like the Japanese schoolchildren did, wanting to know more even though we dread the discovery… With great economy, Sher takes us through the early days of insisting “it can’t happen here” and the ever-increasing strictures placed on the Jewish residents, to the horrible moments when first Hana’s mother, then her father, are taken away…We’re able to move from a Tokyo classroom to the Polish death camps with terrifying rapidity…The final scene has Akira vowing to “find a way out of this sadness” and deciding to present a play about Hana to students all over Japan, so that “this will never happen again.” His belief in the healing power of art is powerfully moving and when their “play” shows Maiko riding her scooter across the stage just as Hana did at the beginning, you will probably sit in the theatre with tears streaming down your face.”

Toronto StarRichard Ouzounian

“So popular was last spring’s world premiere of Hana’s Suitcase, that it is back to launch the 2006-07 season at the Lorraine Kimsa Theatre for Young People. The Holocaust is brought carefully, touchingly, vividly, and tangibly into focus for both the young characters in the play and the audience through a remarkable, yet in many ways ordinary, story that connects the past with the present…All of this is staged with the right mix of ingenuity and subtlety to draw us in without hitting us over the head.”

City ParentDeanne Fisher

“Hana’s Suitcase is a shining example of the power to be found in theatre for young audiences. I can think of no better way to introduce children to the horrible story of the Holocaust, as just 90 minutes of theatre takes them by a gentle but firm hand for a journey through a nightmare. Without getting either too preachy or too scary, a production of Emil Sher’s play…leaves nothing unsaid about what the Germans did 60 years ago when they spread their Nazi insanity all over Europe. Kids will come away from this show with a haunting thought: Hana Brady was just a girl — why was she murdered? [Fumiko’s] journey and the enlightenment she shares with the children are a carefully crafted plea to understand why what happened to Jews matters to everyone, everywhere…When Hana’s short life is snuffed out at the Auschwitz death camp, it’s a genuine human being we see being ushered to the gas chamber. Take your kids. Then talk. Are you ready for the questions, and mature enough to answer them?”

Vancouver SunPeter Birnie

“I don’t get it,” said my 10-year-old guest after Hana’s Suitcase. “Why did the Nazis have to kill all those children?” Hana’s Suitcase, adapted by Emil Sher from Karen Levine’s novel, doesn’t answer the “why” or the “how”–sparing us…the grisly details of the Auschwitz gas chamber in which 13-year-old Hana Brady died… A handsomely realized adaptation… My young guest thought Akira was “funny” and she was genuinely moved by Hana’s story. For adults, what tugs most on the heartstrings are, perhaps, the black-and-white images of the actual, pre-war, blond, curly-haired Hana–happy in the embrace of her loving family.”

Vancouver CourierJo Ledingham

“A moving and brilliantly staged production to be experienced by grownups, teenagers and youngsters alike… Thursday’s opening-night audience, boasting more adults than children, sat hushed as the action unfolded against a spare backdrop of moving screens, projected images and a stunning swath of parchment caught in a tangle of criss-crossing ropes. At times it is torn asunder, at times it reconnects – referencing both the painful destruction of life and family by the Nazis and the beauty of intense family bonds…Fumiko reads George’s account of Hana’s life aloud, and we watch, mesmerized, as young Hana and young George offer us glimpses of their life and their fears and of the world crumbling around them. Hana’s Suitcase does not talk down to the youngsters in the audience. The dark is there, and it is very dark, indeed, but it is tempered with courage and hope. Sher keeps the words simple, and the message clear. A wonderful job.”

The Montreal GazetteKathryn Greenaway

“When the play Hana’s Suitcase is performed, a wonderful thing happens. A theatre full of restless kids becomes silent within the first few scenes. And the theatre remains silent as the audience watches a group of their peers on stage doing some detective work to solve a mystery.”

The ProvinceLynn Mitges

“Teachers are often stumped when it comes to explaining the horrors of the Holocaust to their class. There are the facts, numbers and pictures, but it is difficult for kids to truly understand the scope and tragedy involved. That is why personal stories such as the one presented in Hana’s Suitcase provide an important opportunity to break through the anonymity of the millions of victims and offer a starting point for discussion… The play moves along at a great pace and has the right amount of suspense, mystery, comic relief and drama to keep the children glued to their seats until the end.”

The SuburbanJulia Gerke

“Late in the evening, when Hana lit a birthday candle, I was reminded of a speech from William Hanley’s little-remembered 1964 drama Slow Dance on the Killing Ground. A former railroad engineer on the Auschwitz line who delivered countless Jews to their deaths says, “Every year a bunch of Jewish people get together and light a fat candle for the 6 million Jews the Nazis killed. A candle. For 6 million people you light the sun, maybe. But a candle?” Hana’s Suitcase is only a candle, but it burns brightly.”

Riverfront TimesDennis Brown

“Visually elegant and emotionally striking… The production doesn’t pound the children over the head with atrocious images or inappropriately jarring moments. It eases them gently, but truthfully, into the reality of Hana’s story…And adults (including this one) might be surprised to find themselves tearing up during particularly poignant moments, such as the display of a photo of the real Hana Brady projected onto the background…Director Larry Snipes does an amazing job conducting a harmonious symphony of technical, visual and narrative elements…Masked figures who represent the ghostly anonymity with which most Jews were viewed… render the show emotionally stirring… Much more than just a children’s play, Hana’s Suitcase is a brave, poetic and sometimes chilling production that responsibly passes on the painful lessons of history to the youth of today.”

Lexington Herald-LeaderCandace Chaney

“‘Stories can die if there is no one to tell them.’ The line from Hana’s Suitcase, the First Stage Children’s Theater 2007 opening production, is revelatory. The story is the life of a 13-year-old Jewish girl and her family; the play tackles the drama and the difficulty inherent in preserving such tragic narratives. Hana’s Suitcase deals with hard questions about the Holocaust – specifically, how to present to young people the challenging fact that one and a half million children died…Throughout the play…dark masked figures… illustrate the dreadful days in the camps. As they move silently through the set with bright, blonde Hana, they provide subtle references to the underlying gravity of her circumstances… Ultimately this First Stage production belongs to Hana Brady, giving an important voice to all children, past and present, on stage and off.”

Vital SourcePeggy Sue Dunigan

“Sometimes it takes a single face to help us understand an enormous tragedy. Hana’s Suitcase, the powerful play that opened at First Stage Children’s Theater last weekend, tells the true story of a Japanese teacher who searched for answers about the fate of a young Czechoslovakian girl imprisoned at the Auschwitz concentration camp during World War II…Emil Sher…populates the Holocaust scenes with masked, nameless characters, dressed in gray tatters, depicting the millions of victims whose stories will never be known. The First Stage production tells the story of Hana’s Suitcase with dignity and compassion.”

Milwaukee Sentinel JournalElaine Schmidt

“Early in Hana’s Suitcase, a schoolteacher investigating the life-and death-of a 11-year-old Holocaust victim asks: “How much do you tell the children about what happened? How much of the horror do you describe?” Therein lies the central question of this play about the real life of Hana Brady, who perished along with 1.5 million children during the Holocaust… As Hana, Jessica Schmeling looked and acted the role to perfection, her innocent looks and childlike determination to survive contrasting sharply with the horrors of an eleven-year-old walking off the prison train alone, guard dogs barking ferociously, into the eventual death-grip of Auschwitz. ”

Shepherd ExpressHarry Cherkinian

“Somewhere in the middle of the intensely emotional drama Hana’s Suitcase a Japanese schoolteacher encounters an official from a Holocaust museum. “What,” the traveling teacher asks, “do you tell the children?”… Like many sophisticated works of children’s theater, this fine piece suggests to the targeted young people that the world’s children owe one another solidarity – and thus a collective commitment to change. And that museum official’s answer? “I tell them everything. Eventually.” Parents must decide for themselves, of course, when eventually has arrived. But if this feels like the moment for a telling of this particular 20th century atrocity, this is a safe, inspiring show that also glorifies the memory of the children who didn’t even get their names on a valise.”

Chicago Tribune Chris Jones

“It’s impossible to watch this production as an individual, because as much as the play is the story of Hana Brady, it is also a conversation about community and our responsibility to one another: to remember the past and to tell these histories to each other and to our children… Although Hana’s Suitcase is a children’s production, it is not easy to watch. Some of the imagery is haunting, even terrifying, and the inhumanities – the concentration camps, the murders – are never glossed over. Characters die, if not in front of us, than just out of sight, and even harder to watch are the reactions of those left behind. Watching Hana walk bravely towards the gas chamber is one of the most harrowing, horrifying things I have seen on stage… And that is perhaps the greatest strength of this production. The audience, both children and adults, is asked to be brave. We must live these events, as hard as they may be, and then, as the Japanese students have done, tell and retell these stories so that they may not be forgotten: ‘Stories can die if there is no one to tell them.'”

Oy! ChicagoErin Jones

“This inspirational story spans cultures, continents and generations. It is designed to put a face on a monumental tragedy that all the world’s children need to know about… A compelling story that children 10 years old and up will be able to understand. Sean Graney and adapter Emil Sher have walked that fine line between presenting too much upsetting details and withholding the truth about what happened to Jewish children in Eastern Europe during World War II… This painful look into the past is educational and inspiring for children. The lessons learned and the hopeful tone for the future brings out the compassion children naturally feel. This tasteful play will reach children 10 and up. Kudos to Chicago Children’s Theatre for selecting this important work. Take your kids to see this show and be ready to answer their questions on the ride home.”

theatreinchicago.comJoe Williams

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