Written by Esme Longley ‘20
A second site of construction appeared over the last few weeks or so on Durham Academy’s campus. Unlike the new STEM building on the west of our campus, it does not involve heavy machinery. A procession of chairs, bookshelves, televisions and art marched across the Kenan Auditorium lobby’s shining floors into position. In preparation for the fall play, The Diary of Anne Frank, a dedicated group of students, spearheaded by senior Nechama Huba, worked behind the scenes to create a suitably powerful introduction to a potent production.
Huba led students Andria Shafer, Caroline Aldridge, Kiran Sundar, Cammie Zehner, Luci Jones and Esme Longley to design and assemble the exhibit. The group met during lunches to try to decide the approach for the exhibit, drawing upon Sundar’s photographs of the Holocaust Memorial for inspiration. They ultimately concluded that they wanted less of a museum approach to encourage people to open up to the play.
The story is not an easy one to approach. Harry Thomas, Upper School English teacher and English Department Academic Leader, explains, “I have always found the Anne Frank story to be very, very difficult to think about, read about, or teach. Reading her diary means getting to know this lovely, kind, sometimes difficult, sometimes conflicted, sometimes confused, sometimes really convicted, smart, creative, utterly human teenager and her family and some of her friends . . . and knowing that she and almost all of her family and all of her friends were wiped out by the state, by a government driven by hatred, by intolerance, by a literally insane drive for some kind of ‘purity’ that never did and never will exist. It's a tough story.”
The lobby crew struggled with how to get people to connect with the exhibit, and ultimately, the play. Jones explained the challenges behind the process: “Was it supposed to make you feel like you were Anne and in the middle of Nazi Germany with a whole country breathing down your neck? Was it supposed to be a glimpse into the world of something outside of yourself? Should it be every day or intense? Was it just art for a passive audience or was it something that required more audience/visitor participation?”
Jones felt like the lobby experience transformed the entrance to a building that people mindlessly visit every day into a portal to Anne’s world in order to help the audience humanize her. The simplistic composition of a family dinner scene is something almost everyone experiences daily. The televisions made the clips of the outside world of Amsterdam feel distant and fake, like the families in the annex must have felt. The collage of framed photos of Anne was reminiscent of the ominous end of the play.
Selecting the photographs was a challenge, and Shafer and Aldridge spent much time agonizing over the measurements and quality of the images. Despite the tedious process, they were fascinated by documentation of Anne’s life that they found. Aldridge said, “Each photograph uncovered a new layer of Anne and her family’s life. I found myself often wondering about the story behind each photograph. When was it taken? Who took the photo? What was Anne feeling?” Zehner felt like working on the lobby transformed Anne from a vague figment of the past to a very real, very human person.
The crew found that the implications of the lobby didn’t end at Durham Academy. Jones said, “Anne was normal. We are normal. But terrible, awful sinister things can happen to normal people. And that’s what I saw us trying to do through the lobby. Create a sense that this isn’t just a story about Anne; it’s a story about us and our common humanity.”