A young girl’s gripping tale of art preserving life
By Alejandra Enciso Guzmán
Over the course of the past weeks, responses to the ALS ice bucket challenge have become viral sensations. At its heart, the ALS challenge is a testimony to the hope and courage of people living with the disease and the generosity of people who want to help cure it. The San Diego Repertory Theatre is opening its 39th season with the play “The Pianist of Willesden Lane.” Although it is set in a different time and under different circumstances, it too is a story of hope, courage, generosity–and virtuosity.
The play, directed and adapted by California based Hershey Felder, is based upon the book “The Children of Willesden Lane: Beyond the Kindertransport: A Memoir of Music, Love, and Survival,” written by Mona Golabek and Lee Cohen. It tells the story of Mona’s mother Lisa Jura, an Austrian Jewish girl who was sent by her parents to London to escape Nazi control. Lisa was a musical prodigy; her instrument, the piano. It was a talent that she would pass along to her own two daughters.
Lisa is portrayed in the play by her daughter Mona Golabek. Golabek was taught piano by her mother, who learned to play from her own mother (Mona’s grandmother) Malka Jura. She also has had several outstanding pianists as teachers: Leon Fleisher, Reginald Stewart, and Joanna Graudan. Still, she considers her mother number one– “My mother was the real teacher. She was remarkable. Always telling me stories during the piano lessons, about her life and the composers, always making the music come alive. She always told me that each artist tells their story but –you have to discover what that is.”
Among the memories that Lisa shared with her daughter were stories about the Willesden Lane Orphanage that became her home when she fled to London. Mona, a concert pianist in her own right, realized that she wanted to tell her mother’s journey while debuting Lisa’s favorite musical piece ‘The Grieg concerto.’ “I started to write it down. She saw me writing it, I interviewed her and the people in her life but, my mother didn’t live to see the publication of the book.”
Lisa (Mona Golabek) Introduces the Grieg Concerto
“I told [director] Mr. Felder about bringing my mother’s story to the stage. He invited me to try out a little piece I had been touring around the country with students. He was so moved by it that he said he wanted to produce it. We started to work together and he adapted the book. He is a brilliant director, producer and performer himself!” explained Golabek in during this interview for San Diego Free Press. “He had a vision. He took the ideas that I had, and glued them into a theatrical production.”
What started at the Geffen Playhouse in April 2012 as a staging for two months, got extended over and over reaching six months and a traveling production that had the same effect throughout Boston, Chicago, Berkley, Los Angeles, and Laguna Playhouse among others and now it is coming to San Diego. “A great response from audiences, we have now toured in many cities around the country and I just concluded… I am proud to tell you, a wonderful run in New York City off Broadway. It has been a privilege and an honor to be able to tell my story, my mother’s story to young people and their families; and now, theatrical audiences. It has just been remarkable.”
Every night after the show Mona will have a book signing of ‘The Children of Willesden Lane’. It can be purchased at the theatre and all proceeds are destined to her nonprofit www.holdontoyourmusic.org. The mission of this organization is to expand awareness and understanding of the ethical implications of world events such as the Holocaust, and the power of the arts, especially music, to embolden the human spirit in the face of adversity. “The whole purpose is to bring this to schools, everything goes to the nonprofit.”
Mona, a nominated Grammy artist, also has a radio show titled “The Romantic Hours”. She was a 2012 nominee by the Los Angeles Drama Critics in the category of Best Solo Performance. During a recent performance in Cunningham, Alabama, Mona Golabek received a particularly memorable positive response to her reading. “Mostly African American students cheered the story of the Jewish teenager in WWII. We addressed the issues of the civil rights movement in discussions with them. How do you relate to this? How do you take back to your legacy? What can we all do to work together and make this a better world?”
“All of us have had struggles, losses and challenges. This is the story of beautiful Christians who saved the lives of these children; and, I am alive because of their generosity. I am alive today because of the bravery of my grandmother to make a decision. And my mother who was brave enough in an uncertain world and brave enough to face it, holding on to something that gave her strength.”
“The Pianist of Willesden Lane” starts off San Diego Repertory Theatre’s 39th season. Previews begin Wednesday September 3rd at the Lyceum Stage. Opening night is Saturday September 6th. Tickets scale between $31 and $47 / Students $18. Discounts for groups, seniors and military are available. This play will run until Sunday September 28th.
For more information regarding show times and surrounding musical events, please click here