The Flights of Jan Wiener U.S. Premiere at Georgia College Campus Black Box Theatre
Georgia College and State University actors pushed artistic boundaries this summer in an inspiring performance about Czech Republic hero and Holocaust survivor Jan Wiener entitled “The Flights of Jan Weiner.” The play was written by Jewish Atlantan Karen Berman and co-writer Paul Accettura after Rabbi Neil Sandler of the Ahavath Achim Synagogue mentioned Wiener as a Jewish hero during his High Holy Days services in 2011.
In the past few months, nine GCSU theatre students traveled nearly 5,000 miles to celebrate the legacy of Wiener during the annual European Regional Theatre Festival, which is Central Europe’s largest international festival. Throughout the festival, the student actors gave four stage performances of “The Flights of Jan Wiener” in the Czech’s capital, Prague, and the town of Hradec Králové. "We’re the only academic student group that performs annually at the festival,” said Dr. Karen Berman, chair of the Georgia College and State University Theatre Department. “This festival attracts more than 200 performances that include plays, concerts, exhibitions and workshops.”
The student actors performed for hundreds of audience members, including Wiener’s widow, Zuzana Wiener. “Zuzana attended the play and ran on stage to hug our actors after the third curtain call,” Berman said. “During lunch with us at a restaurant dedicated to her husband’s life, she told us about her work as a dance teacher and film instructor, urging our students to ‘follow your heart and you will always be happy.’” Georgia College senior theatre major Amy Carpenter played Wiener’s stepmother, Eva Wiener. “The play took a new meaning when we met Zuzana,” said Carpenter. “When she gave us firsthand accounts of the events we portrayed on stage, suddenly everything we did and said had more weight. My biggest challenge was getting the emotions correct for the suicide scene. It was a hard place, but I trusted my fellow actors and myself.”
“The Flights of Jan Wiener” explores political issues surrounding the legacy of Wiener, who escaped Nazi occupation and fought for the United Kingdom’s Royal Air Force (RAF) during World War II. The play also stretched the student actors physically, as the performers at one point use their bodies to create a British bomber plane and barbed wire fence. “At one point, I was upside down for several minutes to create the back of a plane,” Carpenter said. “It was really hard. I had to teach myself to live in a place where I could find peace since my body was so uncomfortable.”
Born in 1920 to a Jewish household in Hamburg, Germany, Jan Wiener fled, along with his family, to Prague when the Nazis seized control of Czechoslovakia. Between 1941 and 1942, his father committed suicide and his mother died in a concentration camp. Wiener himself escaped through Italy to join the RAF. He served as a radio navigator throughout the war, and when the war ended in 1945, he returned to Czechoslovakia. In 1948, communists took over and imprisoned Wiener for five years as an enemy of the state. He migrated to the United States in 1964 and became a professor of history at American University in Washington, D.C.
After the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989, Wiener frequently made visits home and eventually moved back for good, becoming a lecturer at Charles University and New York University’s campus in Prague. Berman wrote the play with professional writer Paul Accettura. Georgia College Theatre Department then coproduced the play with professional theatre company Washington Women in Theatre, of which Berman is a member.
“The play provides an understanding of Jan Wiener’s contributions as a Czech hero, U.S. citizen and American professor,” Berman said. “He brought Czech culture to the United States, and we brought his legacy back to his home to share with the Czech Republic.”