GCU theatre brings dark era of Holocaust to light

Story by Ashlee Larrison
Photos by David Kadlubowski

Christina McSheffrey (left) and Tarnim Bybee (right) are two of more than 20 women whose stories are told in Holocaust drama "Who Will Carry the Word?"

Some parts of history we must never forget, no matter how upsetting they may be. The Holocaust is one of those parts of history.

Starting Friday night for two weekends, director Claude Pensis, Dean of the College of Fine Arts and Production, and a remarkable cast of student actresses will bring French Resistance fighter Charlotte Delbo’s moving account of the Holocaust to Grand Canyon University's Ethington Theatre. It will showcase the unimaginable stories of more than 20 women and their time in Auschwitz.

“The story is basically her story in terms of her experiences when she was in that camp,” Pensis said. “The play is also very Greek-like, insofar as none of the action really happens on stage, we hear about it.”

"Who Will Carry the Word?" is based on writer Charlotte Delbo's memoirs of her time at Auschwitz.

Weeks of preparation allowed for the cast to be submerged into history to have a better understanding of the Holocaust for their roles.

“The process was long and arduous,” Pensis said about the preparation for the play material. Dr. Sherman Elliott, Dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, gave the cast a history lesson about the Holocaust and the events that led up to it, followed by a chance for theatre students to hear from a Holocaust survivor herself, 93-year-old Magda Herzberger.

“That was really quite a moving experience,” Pensis said. “To hear what it was like from the mouth of someone who actually was there touches you in a way that you’ll never be exactly the same because it’s that somber and that real.”

Pensis praised his cast members for their dedication to properly convey such a sensitive topic, acknowledging the students’ efforts to approach the concept thoroughly and carefully.

“It’s really intense,” said Allye Moyer, who portrays Gina. “A lot of what prepares me to dive into this role is being as factually correct as we can.”

Moyer said of the play, “It’s incredibly difficult but incredibly rewarding” because it gives them the opportunity to make sure the stories and words of the Holocaust remain.

The stage is surrounded by a real barbed-wire fence to give the illusion of watching the characters from the other side of a real fence at Auschwitz. There will be no music, but audio, such as gunshots firing and blaring horns, will be used to help paint a picture of what the characters are experiencing off stage.

COFAP Assistant Dean William Symington said of the stark play, “You don’t want to theatricalize it, it’s meant to have this impact with the realism of it.”

“It’s the kind of show where you’re not going to have music, transitions or music underlying things or effects of any kind,” said scenic designer and COFAP Assistant Dean William Symington. “You don’t want to theatricalize it. It’s meant to have this impact with the realism of it.”

It also will showcase a talented female cast and the bonds their characters face in times of true terror.

“It’s 25 to 27 women in the cast, and that’s a huge highlight of our program,” said Tarnim Bybee, who plays the role of Francoise. “This is a great opportunity for the women to shine, and we have been working so well together in really trying to support each other.”

The cast and crew hope the play can bring more awareness to the individual stories within those camps and remind the audiences of the real-life tragedies that happened all those years ago and why it is so important they never happen again.

“I hope that they recognize that these were real people with lives before and after,” Bybee said. “They had to keep on going after it was over and remember all of those sights and smells and surroundings that would haunt them for the rest of their lives.”

This isn't the first time Pensis has brought the poetic words of Delbo to Ethington Theatre, since the play was performed around 20 years ago.

The cast prepared for the play by immersing themselves in the time period of the Holocaust, including visiting with Holocaust survivor Magda Herzberger.

“We have some very talented actors today, as we did back then,” Pensis said. “The old one (the old cast) and the new one were very concerned with doing justice to this topic.”

“We haven’t done anything like this in a long time, and it’s just very important,” said Christine Ward, who is portraying Denise.

The melancholy story provided an opportunity for the cast to stray away from the cheerier productions theatre has to offer and immerse themselves in a story that would test them and expose them to one of the most tragic parts of our history.

“Doing musicals and fun comedies is great and I love it, but this is why I do theatre,” Ward said. “To bring awareness and to share people’s stories.”

For the second-to-last performance, on Saturday, Feb. 16, the theatre will welcome speakers Amnon and Avshalom Weinstein and one or more Violins of Hope from a collection of restored instruments played by Jewish musicians during the Holocaust (read GCU Today's Violins of Hope story here). GCU's production of "Who Will Carry the Word?" is one of the first Violins of Hope events in Phoenix, which includes everything from plays to exhibits and musical performances spanning from February to the end of March. The Violins of Hope also will be on campus from 2-3:30 p.m. Friday, Feb. 15, at Ethington Theatre, in conjunction with "Who Will Carry the Word?"

The moving play will leave the audience with knowledge and insight that can’t be taught in textbooks. It's a story that may be difficult to listen to, but it's one that should never be forgotten.


What: “Who Will Carry the Word?” by Charlotte Delbo

When: 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays from Feb. 8-17

Where: Ethington Theatre, GCU campus

Tickets: $12 admission. Discounted tickets for senior citizens, military personnel, GCU and GCE employees, GCU alumni, children 12 years old and younger, and GCU students.

Etc.: Guest speakers Amnon and Avshalom Weinstein will give a presentation about the Violins of Hope, a collection of instruments played by musicians of the Holocaust, immediately following the Feb. 16 performance of the play at the theatre. The Weinsteins and the Violins of Hope also will be on campus the day before, from 2-3:30 p.m. Feb. 15, at Ethington Theatre.

Information: 602-639-8880 or [email protected]

Contact GCU staff writer Ashlee Larrison at [email protected] or at 602-639-8488.


Related content:

GCU Today: "Violins of Hope bring story of Holocaust to campus"

GCU Today: "'Moon,' 'Starcatcher' ... theatre season heaven-sent"

GCU Today: "Hitting the stage: A new GCU theatre troupe"


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GCU Magazine

Bible Verse

For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. (Ephesians 6:12)

To Read More: www.verseoftheday.com/