David Strathairn in khakis and sweater vest, lying on stage floor in front of a wooden table and chair
David Strathairn in Remember This: The Lesson of Jan Karski Credit: Teresa Castracane Photography

In this fraught time of political divisions and worldwide calamities, in the face of seemingly impossible odds, how can we find the courage and conviction to stand up for what is right?

From November 3-14 at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Emmy Award-winning and Academy Award-nominated actor David Strathairn (Good Night, and Good Luck, Nomadland, Lincoln) will take the stage in a one-man performance about the life of Jan Karski, the Polish diplomat who warned the White House about the atrocities being committed in Nazi-occupied Poland during the Holocaust.

Remember This: The Lesson of Jan Karski, written by Georgetown professor Derek Goldman and his former student Clark Young and directed by Goldman, captures Karski’s life story as a courier, risking his life to bring word of the massacres of Jews and Poles to exiled Polish leaders as well as the U.S. and Allied governments.

Remember This: The Lesson of Jan Karski
11/3-11/14: Tue-Sat 7:45 PM, Sun 3 PM; also Sat 11/6, 2 PM, the Yard at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, 800 E. Grand, 312-595-5600, chicagoshakes.com, $43-$75.

Strathairn originated the role in 2014 at the centennial celebration of Jan Karski’s birth at Georgetown University’s Laboratory for Global Performance and Politics, whose mission is “humanizing politics through performance.”

“It began as an ensemble piece with Georgetown students and myself,” Strathairn says, describing how it originated as a staged reading during a commemorative weekend, and was later whittled down to its current form. “We didn’t really think it was going to have a life beyond that, but the response from the school of foreign service, people in the audience, people in the Polish community, felt this was compelling.”

From there, they started offering the show to theaters, museums, and Jewish organizations. They realized Karski was a historical figure who needed a light shone on him and to be elevated for his powerful contributions, as well as his lifelong commitment to teach and inspire the next generation to take action and follow his lead. “I wasn’t surprised that it would affect people, learning about this man,” Strathairn says. “He’s been in the wings too long. The legacy of Jan Karski has been dormant. It was exhilarating to find the response and the desire to have it carry on.”

Strathairn traveled the world, performing in Poland, at Holocaust museums, and in London for Holocaust Remembrance Day. “We went to Poland on the eve of the opening of the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews,” Strathairn says, “which was actually built on the Warsaw Ghetto’s footprint. We did a production at a theater with Polish acting students. That was enlightening. Every step along the way we’ve learned something about the resonance of the piece.”

Over time, the show evolved to engage the audience in questions related to how we bear witness and our role in speaking out. “We decided to bookend the piece with the common man posing questions, like ‘What do you do when you’re presented with moments like the Holocaust, or climate change, or COVID? What do you do? What should you do? Do you have a duty?’ We frame Karski’s contributions with those questions.”

This incredible story of bravery and moral responsibility feels especially poignant and timely today. “We’re onto something,” Strathairn says, “with this conceit of the common man coming off the streets to ask a question to his fellow citizens, what do we do? Then we turn it over to Karski as an example of inspiration, for an answer, of some sorts, to those questions.”

Strathairn first learned of Karski when watching Shoah in 1985, Claude Lanzmann’s nine-and-a-half hour documentary about the Holocaust, which features 40 minutes of testimony from Karski. “His testimony was just seared upon me,” Strathairn recalls, “and lingered with me. And when Derek called me and said, ‘We’re putting together an event to honor Jan Karski,’ I said, ‘Wow, yes, please sign me up.’”

Looking back on his award-winning career spanning four decades, Strathairn says that the part of Karski, as compared to other roles he has played, is “maybe one of the most challenging. The role of Edward R. Murrow [from Good Night, and Good Luck] was a high bar for me to grab on to, because of his influence as an icon of broadcast journalism. This being a one-man show asks for a lot, but this one, and Edward R. Murrow, stand out as being the most challenging. It is also very rewarding too. The accolades of performance come and go, they are ethereal, but what people take away from the story of those two men, I feel that is important, that is the most rewarding thing, reigniting their memories.”

Strathairn says that a young law student at Georgetown stood up in the audience recently, barely able to keep from being overwhelmed at how Karski resonated with her life as a student in the school of foreign service. “What do I do?” she asked. “How can I do that?”

Strathairn found that encounter very moving and telling. “He is a potent influence,” he says, “for people launching into a career with foreign service, and for the everyday citizen trying to figure out the most critical issues and to ask, ‘How do I grapple with the questions of what can I do? Do I have a duty, a responsibility?’ It’s becoming almost cliché, but when you pull it apart and examine the actual bones and neurology of what it means, you start considering one’s moral center, the ethical center of moral courage of what it means to say something, and to whom, and at what risk. That’s why we think it’s great that it’s back in the theater honoring the age-old tradition of storytelling.

Strathairn thinks it is wonderful that theaters are opening up again “to share a common experience, when it comes to entertainment. It’s the best place to get together to entertain some important thoughts.” He acknowledges the theater’s responsibility to, as he says, “provide, at best, a visceral connection to ideas,” complemented by the Laboratory for Global Performance and Politics’s aim to put a “human face on the political issues of today for students to examine these issues.”

“You may or may not have heard of Karski,” Strathairn says, “but you will never forget him after you learn about him.”