Roger Guenveur Smith is the writer and star of "Otto Frank," playing at the Magic Theatre in San Francisco this month.
Roger Guenveur Smith is the writer and star of "Otto Frank," playing at the Magic Theatre in San Francisco this month.

One-man play about Anne Frank’s father, Otto, comes to San Francisco

No one steps inside the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam without being moved. For actor-playwright Roger Guenveur Smith, visiting the secret annex where Anne and her family hid from the Nazis for two years moved him so much, he wrote a play.

A play about Anne Frank’s father.

Over the years since Anne’s diary was published in 1947, there have been multiple works for stage and screen about Anne. But Smith’s play focuses on Otto, the Frank family’s sole survivor and the man who recovered, edited and published the diary that changed the world.

“Otto Frank,” written and performed by Smith, with a musical score performed live by Marc Anthony Thompson, opens March 12 for a three-weekend run at the Magic Theatre in San Francisco.

After preparing to premiere the play at the Under the Radar Festival in New York a few years ago, Smith had to hit the brakes with “Otto Frank” due to the Covid-19 pandemic and its subsequent shutdown of theaters nationwide.

Now, he is excited about opening his one-man show at the Magic before live audiences.

Smith’s Otto sits at a long desk before a microphone, as if he were testifying at a hearing. Largely addressing his late daughter Anne, Otto speaks in poetic, dirge-like tones about a shattered world. The disaster that befell the Franks haunts Otto, who seems to yearn for an absolution that can never come. But in the play, Otto doesn’t stop with the family’s ordeal or the Holocaust.

“In many ways, this piece is an imagined flow of Otto Frank’s life and beyond,” Smith says from his Los Angeles home. “We don’t want people leaving the theater saying, ‘Isn’t it horrible what happened back then?’ That’s a knee-jerk performance that will last two seconds. We want people’s imaginations to be energized, and for people to walk out of the theater and look at this moment in a new way.”

The play touches on other tragedies —such as the Rwandan genocide of 1994 and the 2009 murder of a Black security guard at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. — even though both took place long after Otto Frank’s death in 1980.

RELATED: A new Anne Frank Center aims to reshape racism through Holocaust education

Smith sees in history’s cruel milestones an intersectional aspect that defies time and space, including what’s happening today in Ukraine.

“Doing this piece at this moment, it’s fraught with extraordinarily disturbing imagery,” he says. “To see [Ukrainians] struggling to get onto trains to alleged safety, and denied that opportunity. You reverse that imagery and you see people like the Franks, herded onto trains to [the Nazi transit camp] Westerbork,” and then off to death camps.

This isn’t Smith’s first one-man show. He has written and starred in plays about abolitionist Frederick Douglass, Black Panther co-founder Huey P. Newton and Rodney King, the victim of a savage beating at the hands of Los Angeles police officers in 1991.

Born in Berkeley, Smith, 66,  graduated from Yale University’s vaunted drama program and then launched a busy career as an actor for the stage, television and film. He has appeared in several Spike Lee films, portraying Rudy (a caterer-turned-criminal) in “Malcolm X” and Big Time Willie in “He Got Game.”

Smith, who is Black, knows the sometimes complicated, sometimes heroic, history of Jewish and African American relations in America. He says that informed the writing and staging of “Otto Frank.”

“The word ‘ghetto’ is Italian,” he notes, stressing that the word originated in the Venetian Ghetto that housed the city’s Jews for centuries. “I went to Beverly Hills High School at a time when the school was predominantly Jewish.”

He credits Rodney King for giving him the idea for his latest play. Invited to Amsterdam to perform his work about King, he made a pilgrimage to the Anne Frank House. Seeing the room in which Anne wrote her diary spurred Smith’s creative juices.

“I was very inspired to imagine [Otto] coming back to this house,” he recalls. “Empty, quiet, dark, having lost his wife and two daughters, and having this diary in his hand, trying to make his way through it.”

A father of four, Smith relates to Otto the father and cannot imagine the agony he must have felt after losing Anne and his other daughter, Margot. But he notes that Otto Frank devoted the rest of his long life to honoring his murdered children through the power of Anne’s words.

“He served as a kind of surrogate father,” Smith notes. “Kids all over the world would write to him because they were so connected to his daughter. In her diary, she felt he was an ideal father.”

“Otto Frank”

8 p.m. Saturday and 3 and 8 p.m. Sunday, March 12-29 at Magic Theatre, Fort Mason Center, Building D, S.F. $20-$70.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.