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The Holocaust, taught to children in schools across America, is a part of history known to most children over a certain age. But the translation of history into a tangible, real event can be difficult for children to grasp. Storybooks are often used to fill this gap, books like Tropical Secrets: Holocaust Refugees in Cuba by Margarita Engle. However, something different happens when those stories are told on stage, with living, breathing characters. Although Tropical Secrets at Children’s Theatre of Charlotte was made primarily for children, I found myself laughing and crying alongside them in the audience. It was a beautiful representation of children’s interactions with grief, loss, war, and destruction. And yet, the show still gave cause for celebration, finding joy, friendship, and kindness in the most unexpected places.
There was a warm silence emanating from the set while we waited for the show to begin. Tiles lined the thrust stage, and pictures hung around the scenery, creating the feeling of home. Few noticed as Margaret Dalton made her way onto the stage, suitcase in hand. But as the other actors followed, a hush fell over the audience. We intently watched as these people entered a place they had felt was a home, or could certainly be a home but was unfamiliar to them. Then, they began to tell the stories of our protagonists, Daniel and Paloma, children who have experienced two different kinds of loss. This chilling sequence repeated the phrase “like that,” symbolic of how quickly these children lost what they held dear: Paloma’s mother and Daniel’s family and home.
The coolly lit disorientation of the opening scene was suddenly contrasted by the hot sun that beats down on Daniel when he first arrives in Cuba. Daniel is still shaken from the events prior, the death of his grandfather during Kristallnacht, his rushed farewell to his parents, and his strenuous trip on a boat to many countries until Cuba accepted the German-Jewish refugees. He is confused by the Cuban people who approach him, both by their language and behavior. He refuses to change his clothes until Paloma, a ten-year-old Cuban child, greets him. She removed her shoes, hat, and shirt, offering them to Daniel so he could take off his wool coat and scarf to cool down a little. Still refusing, he is eventually convinced by David (Tom Scott), an older Jewish man. David tells Daniel he must accept friendship wherever it is offered and gives him rules to abide by in the new land of Cuba.
A month goes by before Daniel can speak even a little Spanish to Paloma. Although she is unimpressed by his slow grasp of Spanish, the two begin to form a friendship. Paloma brings Daniel to carnaval, where they are enamored by the colorful parade and lights. However, the fireworks trigger Daniel, sending him back to the night his grandfather was fatally shot. This lesson of PTSD and the effects of traumatic events was perfectly delivered by this production. It didn’t water down the severity of these experiences, but instead, showed children how they can affect people in a simple, direct way.
A year later, Daniel spends his days drumming and saying he’s forgotten how to speak Yiddish. Paloma insists she doesn’t believe him. The two watch Ernesto Lecuona in concert, reminding Daniel of his life in Germany and reaffirming his desire to find his parents again. With new legislation declaring all Christian Germans will be arrested as a result of Cuba’s alliance with the US, Paloma and Daniel fight to hide two German refugees, Marta (Margaret Dalton) and Miriam (Paula Baldwin). After rescuing them, it’s revealed Paloma’s father is El Gordo (Frank Dominguez), the man who has been sending ships full of refugees away. Daniel is angered by this and refuses to speak to Paloma after hiding this secret. Paloma, intent on fixing this situation, convinces her father to let her raise money to buy the visas for every passenger on the boat sitting in their harbor. Reunited, Daniel and Paloma bring Havana together and successfully raise one million pesos to pay for the visas. Daniel, after realizing his parents weren’t on that boat, is heartbroken and remembers he has never had a bar mitzvah. But David, ever the wiser, reminds him the best part of the bar mitzvah is when the child tells everyone what they have learned. A younger Daniel (Calvin Jla-Hao Mar) enters, and Daniel tells him the three rules David told him on his first day in Cuba.
Tropical Secrets filled me with childlike wonder as I explored the difficult topics of the show with the characters on stage. The cast was fantastic at keeping us on our toes and I was incredibly entranced by the colors and life of Cuba. Isabel Gonzalez and Adrian Thornburg (Paloma and Daniel, respectively) were living representations of the innocent strength of childhood friendships. Gonzalez was the embodiment of joy and curiosity. Thornburg’s performance as Daniel was incredibly moving. Seeing a young child interact with the Holocaust is heartbreaking, but it is important for children and adults alike to be reminded of such moments in human history.
Tropical Secrets continues at Children’s Theatre of Charlotte through Sunday, November 14. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.