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What would Otto Frank tell Anne about Charlottesville? A new play tells us.

Roger Guenveur Smith had been meaning to play Anne Frank’s father for some time – but first he had to embody someone quite different.

“I was finally ready to really dive into the archives, and lo and behold, we lost Rodney King,” said Smith, who performed a one-man show as King, the Black victim of infamous, filmed brutality at the hands of white Los Angeles police officers. “I thought that that piece would simply be a piece of mourning for that summer of loss. But this thing called America kept happening – and Rodney continued to have a certain resonance.”

King died in 2012, but the play, “Rodney King,” had a long afterlife, filmed by Smith’s regular collaborator Spike Lee and available to stream on Netflix. While performing the show in Amsterdam, Smith was reminded of his long-shelved project while visiting the Anne Frank House, a place he found to be both reverential and commercial (it has a gift shop).

“That’s the paradox of Otto Frank’s struggle through a very long and productive life,” Smith said. “How do you serve the living and simultaneously serve the dead?”

Roger Guenveur Smith

This tension, which Smith uncovered poring over Frank’s personal letters and through research with universities, is at the center of “Otto Frank,” Smith’s latest solo show, now playing at San Francisco’s Magic Theatre.

Like Smith’s Peabody and Obie award-winning theater piece “A Huey P. Newton Story” and “Rodney King,” “Otto Frank” is a lyrical approach to biography. In the play, Frank’s monologue drifts from the 13th birthday of his youngest daughter, when he gifted her a small, checkered diary, to his discovery of the book after the war and his decision to release it to the world. Smith, who has two daughters, has long found Frank a resonant character, and wanted to explore his place as a “surrogate father” for a “lost generation.”

“All these kids from all over the world were reading translations of the diary in their own languages, and then they wrote to Otto as if he were their father,” said Smith, “Because, of course, his daughter described him as an ideal father.”

Nonetheless, Frank’s actions were scrutinized. A good amount of the play’s one-hour runtime focuses on his response to the backlash, including the one inspired by his support for casting the non-Jewish Audrey Hepburn in the film. (Millie Perkins, also not Jewish, ultimately won the role of Anne; Smith, who describes himself as a Black Catholic, says he expects “people on all sides of the racial divide to be weighing in on Smith playing Frank.”)

Smith’s Frank is not anchored to any moment in history. He tells his daughter about events that came long after his death, in 1980, at the age of 91. We hear his pain over Poway, Pittsburgh and Christchurch. He even has something to say about Arnold Gutierrez, a rapper who in 2017 had Anne Frank tattooed on his face.

Playing Frank, Smith wears casual clothes (though the real Frank was, per Smith, a “natty dresser”) and eschews a German accent (“he was fluent in English; he worked at Macy’s as a young man”). Smith’s evocation of him is deliberate, impassioned and, at times, wry and ironic. His diction is impeccable and, when riffing on “Macbeth,” almost Gielgudian. At the same moment Frank’s physicality is staid.

“I didn’t want to repeat myself. I think that a lot of my work is very movement-oriented and very visceral,” said Smith, who refers to his own performance as Rodney King as “Soul Train Kabuki.” “I wanted a piece which was very still, very quiet, trying to invite the audience deep into the mind and soul of this man who lived a remarkable life.”

Smith’s Frank is all the more remarkable for his sensitivity, recognizing a long line of atrocities from the Middle Passage, Wounded Knee and on to Bosnia. His empathy for the Black GIs that liberated the camps and a Japanese-American soldier, whose family was interned, amplify Frank into a picture of moral clarity – albeit a slightly priggish one – who sees a shared, often overlapping legacy for the disenfranchised.

As a historian – he was a graduate student of history at Yale – Smith finds poignant flashpoints, recalling a tragic day in 2009, when an 88-year-old white supremacist shot and killed a Black police officer at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. The officer, Stephen Tyrone Johns, saved the lives of visitors there to see a play that imagined a conversation between Anne Frank and Emmett Till.

“The son of the victim, just a little boy with microphones and cameras stuck up in his face, said that he was sad and he was mad at the man who had shot and killed his dad,” Frank says in the play, viewing the event as a father, before taking a longer view of history.

“The museum placed a black plaque on the wall in honor of the father,” Frank says. “On the walls of all these museums, there are maps where we might trace the progress of our egress, our demise. But what of the rise of this new power, still ascendant? These swastikas still aflutter, the tiki torches on parade?”

For Smith, Frank’s story, one of a steward of his daughter’s life and symbol for countless other children, can’t be divorced from the realities of today.

“Frank, I would like to think, is living and breathing among us,” said Smith. “And hopefully opening our eyes not only to the horror and desperation and degradation of his time – of his moment, and his daughter’s moment – but hopefully illuminate the present moment, which is fraught with desperation and degradation and everything which made the 20th century a horrific moment in our history.”

“Otto Frank” will be playing at the Magic Theatre from March 12 to March 27. Tickets and information can be found here.

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