In 'How Many Others,' untold stories are brought to life

Theater has power beyond entertainment. It can inspire empathy for humanity. It can share new perspectives for looking at the world. And theater can uncover hidden stories, shedding light on deep-buried narratives. That’s what the new play “How Many Others” aims for, putting the spotlight on Ukrainian women whose accounts have long gone untold. The stories its true-to-life characters share expose the real cost of war on the women it touches.

Developed and produced this year at Carnegie Mellon, “How Many Others” is a delicate yet honest exploration of dark themes and sensitive topics, focusing on the wartime experiences of Ukrainian-Jewish women. The play reveals the underreported toll war takes on women, with the prevalence of sexual violence that lurks beneath the surface of military occupation.

“How Many Others” endeavors to give real life stories coverage through theater, resulting in a deeply impactful production bringing those stories to life with gravity and grace. Covering themes of ultranationalism, antisemitism, and the brutality of war, “How Many Others” begs that question throughout – how many more women will be made victims before the violence ends?

Written by Kristi Good, a professor of dramaturgy in the School of Drama, the play weaves a narrative in documentary style of life in contemporary Ukraine. In developing her work, Good drew on research by two of her dramaturgy students, who had been studying real accounts of Ukrainian-Jewish women alongside the History department.

The stories “How Many Others” is drawn from were collected by Centropa, a European organization dedicated to preserving Jewish memory and histories to preserve and share with the world. Women who’ve lived through consecutive wars have striven to provide diaries for the world to remember their struggles, commenting on post-invasion life.

Recordings from Centropa were poured over by the dramaturgs, who uncovered a dark history of sexual violence during wartime. As Jewish citizens faced the terrors of the Holocaust, many now face parallel traumas as Russia’s war in Ukraine wears on. Assault on captured women was common then and is widespread now, often used as fuel for soldiers’ hypermasculinity as well as a tactic of suppression. From deep dramaturgical research in these issues emerged an urgent need to share war stories with an audience, and “How Many Others” is the product.

“It happened serendipitously,” Good said. Her students shared their research and she knew it had to take the stage for people to understand what’s happening to women in Ukraine right now. Among themes of family and community, the play explores the gendered experiences of Ukrainians during war, revealing stark differences in how war impacts women versus men. It combats attempts at erasing and denying the stories of women, compassionately recognizing war’s many hidden victims.

In hearing the stories one after another, common themes began to emerge. Good ultimately condensed elements from dozens of narratives into four characters — Jewish women of different generations. Each has experienced the same pains of war yet in different ways, some surviving the rape culture of Ukrainian military men, others dealing with the wounds left by abrupt displacement. All have felt the pain of war violence; they all must come together to comfort one another and rebuild. Human kindness and community, continually lost and rebuilt during war, is often all there is to survive its horrors.

Stories like theirs have not gained major attention. As the play expresses, not many people talk about the violence toward women that occurs in war, not many admit that it’s happened repeatedly throughout history. Violence against women is prevalent, used as a tactic for maintaining societal control. Sexual assault on women has long been carried out by the military to keep a country repressed. Russian armies in Ukraine have been doing just that, as German armies did in WWII.

In an extreme nationalist view, women’s role in Ukrainian society is solely to raise children. The female body symbolizes the territory of the motherland, something to remain pure, untouched, and unscathed. When invading forces assault the local women, they are seen as tarnishing the sanctity of the nation itself. Rape during war is not an accident, nor a byproduct. It’s calculated and deliberate — it is a weapon itself.

Good has long been involved with uncovering hidden narratives, a major focus of her work as a dramaturg. Exposing the darkest underbelly of war, illuminating the women caught in its ravages, has been the driving focus through this play’s development process.

“I'm interested in the people who get pushed to the side or silenced because they don't fit into the larger social narrative,” Good said. Learning of the violence war brings to women, she thought, “Wow, that's something that really needs to be talked about.” Her play, a work in progress, is that response.

In today’s world, so much goes unnoticed, so many stories go untold. A medium like theater is perfect for sharing those stories and informing the world about a reality many never see. The best of theatrical productions expands the worldview of their audience. “How Many Others” paces like a drama, but the stories it documents are profoundly real. In the play’s final moments, its leading ladies hold each other arm in arm and breathe a deep breath as one. The hurt has been done, but with each other the healing can begin.