A Playwright’s ‘Wait … What?’ Approach to Difficult History

Mining Shock and Disbelief to Connect Audiences With the Past, Present, and One Another

What can we learn about society’s sins by sitting in an off-Broadway theater? Playwright Michelle Kholos Brooks explains why she writes about hard issues. A scene from Brooks’ play H*tler’s Tasters, production by New Light Theater Project. Photo by Hunter Canning.

I’m often identified as someone who writes “issues” plays, but I’m less high-minded about my subject matter than I should probably admit. Generally, I don’t decide to write a play because I know I want to say something important about gun violence, military veterans, or the exploitation of young women—although I care deeply about these topics.

I’m activated to write about a subject when I have a Wait…What? moment. It’s what I call the moment when I find an idea so difficult to fathom that I react by saying to myself, sometimes out loud:


I come across loads of stories where I think, I could write about that, but I feel no urgency.  A Wait… What? moment tells me that there’s a question begging to be investigated. And that if I don’t give it the attention it demands, someone nimbler will discover it and carry it forward. In her book Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert writes that she imagines ideas floating in space, poking us until they get our attention. She argues that if an idea is generous enough to present itself, it is our responsibility to coax it over and incubate it—and to give it life by channeling it through our distinctly personal thoughts and experiences, and even our generational histories. Gilbert argues, and I would agree, that if you don’t embrace and dance with an idea that shows up for you, the rascal will float off and find someone worthy—like a jilted lover who suddenly understands their value.

Certain Wait… What? ideas land with an iron thunk so heavy I can’t ignore them if I try. In 2014 I read an article about a 95-year-old German woman who had just come forward to tell her story of being conscripted to be one of Adolf Hitler’s food tasters. She claimed that he chose only young women who were of “good German stock” to test his food for poison.

Wait…what? Just when I thought I had heard every abhorrent thing about Hitler, I learned he had people test his food for poison. He didn’t choose Jews, Poles, homosexuals, or members of any number of communities he hated for this job. Rather, he conscripted young German women who were ostensibly the future of the Reich—the anticipated bearers of his ideal Aryan children. I imagined a room of girls alternately amusing and turning against each other to kill time between meals; waiting to see if they would die.

When the Wait… What strikes, it sparks something in me that desperately needs to connect, to know if this feeling of pained disbelief resonates with anyone else.

Suddenly, through the lens of incredible, reportedly true events, I had my opportunity to work through long-simmering questions I had about the way society treats young women as expendable, and the dangers of complacency.

I told myself I would not write my H*tler’s Tasters idea before I could do airtight research. But then, in 2016, I took part in a 48-hour playwriting challenge. Each participant got a sealed envelope containing writing prompts, and we had 48 hours to create a play—the only rule was that we could never look back and edit what we had written. The process is grueling, but also thrilling, in the way that you don’t have time to censor yourself.

I hadn’t researched the “tasters” at all at that point, but as soon as I broke the envelope’s seal, I felt the play screaming to be revealed. So I wrote. I set the story around 1944, but I gave the girls cell phones. I didn’t want them to feel like sepia-toned people in history. It felt critical that we could recognize our daughters, sisters, friends, and ourselves in the young women conscripted to do this terrible job for a madman. Forty-eight fuzzy hours later I had my first draft of H*tler’s Tasters. I started the hard work of investigating those threads that would make the play less impulsive and more grounded.

The line between past and present blurred. I was stunned to find that the rhetoric I heard during the 2016 election cycle paralleled those of 1930s and ’40s Germany—sometimes word for authoritarian word. Wait…What? I double- and triple-checked my sources to be sure. Vile rants about women during the 2016 campaign reinforced and deepened the intensity of scenarios I created for my female tasters.

Later on, when Trump firings ensued—underlings blamed and even jailed for offenses that came from the very top—I noticed another striking parallel. The young German women of H*tler’s Tasters were ostensibly at the top of society, and were sacrificed without a second thought. Ultimately, a tyrant will turn on his own. No amount of privilege will save any of us.

When I started working on my newest play, Room 1214, the Wait…What was more like, Wait… What the F***?  While researching another project, I had the great honor of meeting Ivy Schamis, a teacher at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Two students in Ms. Schamis’ classroom were killed when a young gunman, swastikas etched into his combat boots and the bullets in his gun, shot his way through the school on February 14, 2018.

I thought I knew all the details of that event. But I hadn’t realized that Ms. Schamis was teaching a Holocaust history class—students literally studying hate crimes—when the shooting took place. Wait… What? Room 1214 became my attempt to make sense of a seemingly endless well of hate, and our collective cultural ability to shrug, shake our heads, and go back to business as usual.

Can we learn anything new about our personal and universal sins by sitting in an off-Broadway theater? When I get into an existential crisis about my time spent writing, wondering if there’s a better way to serve the world, I remind myself what the author Kazuo Ishiguro said in his Nobel Prize lecture, “…stories are about one person saying to another, This is the way it feels to me. Can you understand what I’m saying? Does it also feel this way to you?

When the Wait… What strikes, it sparks something in me that desperately needs to connect, to know if this feeling of pained disbelief resonates with anyone else. If Elizabeth Gilbert’s theory is correct, then perhaps there is some metaphysical design that causes ideas to circle back in search of a medium, demanding we wrestle with them until, perhaps, we assign them their deserved value.

We live in a time when we are besieged with information, when it’s easy to feel numb to absurdity and bad news. I offer that sitting in a theater, collectively breathing and receiving stories, we experience a collision of past, present, and future in a space where everyone is vulnerable. The playwright offers her work to be scrutinized. The actors lay bare their bodies to sink into someone else’s skin. The audience members open themselves up to myriad discomforts—from turning off their phones for a couple of hours to watching a bitter truth on stage.

In that small moment in time, in the dark, we have the time and space to collectively feel the Wait…What together. Perhaps it is here, where strangers seem safe instead of suspicious, that we can open ourselves up to reckon with the sins of our past and their implications for our collective future.


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