Written by Chicago playwright and actor Omer Abbas Salem, The Secretaries is a funny and subversive farce set in a parallel universe’s Nazi Germany. Salem (he/they) is a well known Chicago actor and one of our city’s most exciting emerging playwrights. While The Secretaires is their first true in-person production, Salem’s work has been developed at the Goodman, Jackalope, Steppenwolf, National Queer Theater, and The New Coordinates.
The theatre canon is filled with stories about the Holocaust and, from Cabaret to Sound of Music, big musical numbers about mass genocide. Salem’s script, with its creative alterations to history, offers audiences something new and provocative. This play’s four dynamic characters, outfitted in Aryan Drag, struggle through their time employed as Secretaries at “Hiller’s Office of Mysteries.” Yes, Hiller, not Hitler.
Hannah Guggenheim (Harris) gives a structure to this absurdist play, as she introduces us to the world, telling us of the play’s events as if they have already happened. We learn of her loneliness, and how she dreams to escape to the lost city of Atlantis. Harris then shifts with equal talent and finesse to don a mustache and play the role of Jeff, their conniving manager, and source of much of the workplace drama in Hiller’s office of mysteries. Hannah, Helga (Modaff), and Helena (Price), later joined by Henrietta (Pandya), are all incredibly distinct women, each with their own approach to their circumstances. Hannah, shy about sex, is contrasted with the promiscuous Helena who really loves pegging their boss, Hiller, during their private “meetings.” Helga is a perfectionist, and Henrietta lives in a state of constant denial of her reality in order to survive.
Powerful but fickle men pit the four secretaries against each other, competing for a shot to be the favorite of Führer Hiller. In their struggle for love, safety, and power, the secretaries process both familiar and nuanced experiences of sexual and relationship trauma. In The Secretaries, we see and understand these women and their choices anew. Every character is both so clearly complicit and accepting of the horrors of Nazi Germany, while also sympathetic through their circumstantial humanity. The choices they make are guided by their options as Aryan women, or those pretending to be such to fit into a white supremacist patriarchy.
This play is not afraid to address hard topics and it does so with care. An “H” for Hiller replaces the swastika on the secretaries’ uniforms designed by Isaac-Jay Pineda, and hot pink replaces the familiar Nazi red throughout Eleanor Kahn’s resourceful set design. The conversations of sexual assault are similarly discussed through metaphor that aligns with the characters’ individual coping tools.
While Hitler has thankfully been dead for the last 75 years, we cannot forget that his actions were in large part inspired by the US government’s treatment of Indigenous peoples, and a legacy of genocide that continues to this day. As absurd as this play may seem, it asks unfortunately timeless questions about how we take up space, how we perform gender, and what choices we make to fit in. As Laura Alcalá Baker writes in her director’s note:
“Preservation has long been the justification for acts of evil. Preservation of family values. Preservation of the race. Preservation of self. But, Dear Audience, I’m sick of it. I hope beyond hope that we all are.”
This play does not offer the audience much clarity, and I left the theatre not entirely sure how to feel. I appreciate the playwright’s trust in the audience’s intelligence, but with such a unique take on an undoubtedly traumatic story, with actors of color dressed in drag makeup and pretending to be white women and Nazis, I wonder if we might need a little bit more help from the dialogue to understand the play’s perspective. What I can say is that Salem’s characters combined with Baker’s masterful directing took me on a subliminally provocative journey. The Secretaries is a uniquely queer and intersectional play, well matched by some of Chicago’s most talented actors and storytellers.
The Secretaries runs at First Floor Theater (Resident Company at The Den) until this Saturday, June 11. This show is one hour and 45 minutes with no intermission. Masks and proof of vaccination required.
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Hannah – LaKecia Harris
Helga – Emilie Modaff
Helena – Sarah Price
Henrietta – Tina Muñoz Pandya
Hannah (u/s) – Kim Fukawa
Helga (u/s) – Jesi Mullins
Helena (u/s) – Elizabeth Wigley
Henrietta (u/s) – Bradley Halverson
Omer Abbas Salem, Playwright
Laura Alcalá Baker, Director
Eleanor Kahn, Scenic Design
Isaac-Jay Pineda, Costume Design
Claire Sangster, Lighting Design
Andrew Littleton, Sound Design
Royen Kent, Wig Design
Caitlin Boho, Makeup Consultant
Nina D’Angier, Details Design
Rachel Flesher, Violence and Intimacy Design
Ian Maryfield, Associate Violence and Intimacy Design
Layla Bahmanziari, Dramaturg
Anastar Alvarez, Production Manager
Oswald Avile, Stage Manager
Catherine Miller, Casting
Leo Batutis, Associate Director
Photo Credit: Anna Gelman