Many nations’ leaders have food tasters, although you never hear about them. This is with good reason. For while Donald Trump surely wouldn’t want any substance burbling in his Big Mac that would turn him into a decent human being, the Secret Service also wouldn’t want the public to know who is stopping that from happening. So just as food served to former President Obama was tasted by the chef who prepared it, so we presume it is today for the current occupant of the White House.
In her play Hitler’s Tasters, produced by New Light Theater Project at IRT Theater (154 Christopher St.) through Oct. 27, Michelle Kholos Brooks seizes upon a curious historical footnote, depicting not one but three tasters of the Fuhrer’s food. (In fact, there were 15 food tasters, all women; many were also raped by the SS. The sole survivor of the group, Margot Woelk, talked about her experience before her death in 2014 at age 96.)
Brooks’ play, which premiered in 2017 at New Jersey’s Centenary Stage Company, tries to envision daily life for Hitler’s triumvirate of young female tasters. What is life like when you know that every bite of food you take could be your last? Is there sweet or sour irony in those prosaic hours between meals, as the young women do what so many young women do — gossip and laugh, question and dance, and dream?
Brooks has had productions of her plays staged across the US and Canada. Hitler’s Tasters won the prestigious Susan Glaspell Award in 2017; an earlier play, Hostage, was a finalist for the Woodward/Newman Drama Award. She is a former journalist and producer for such radio programs as Marketplace and The Savvy Traveler. Brooks is also a nonresident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council within the Scowcroft Center on Strategy and Security. Finally, she is married to writer Max Brooks, son of Anne Bancroft and Mel Brooks, which informed my final question, below.
And now, 5 questions that Michelle Kholos Brooks has never been asked:
What’s the most perceptive question anyone has asked you about your work?
During the last production of Hitler’s Tasters, I was asked what I wanted people to come away with from the play. I recognized then that I wasn’t out to change any minds or teach any lessons — I think dedicated theater people tend to have similar politics and concerns. But I did realize that my most idealistic self, hoped people would come away from the play with a reminder — a little nudge — about the dangers of complacency.
What’s the most idiotic question anyone has asked you about your work?
I live in a family of writers and they are all male. I have been asked many times if the men in my family “helped” me with my plays. I kind of doubt anyone has asked them if I’ve helped them.
What’s the weirdest question anyone has asked you about your work?
If one of Hitler’s food tasters didn’t like — or viscerally hated — whatever they were tasting for him, what recourse did they have? In addition to food tasters, what do we know about who was in the room when they did the tasting?
I can’t say for sure, but I suspect that if Hitler wants you to eat your peas, you eat your peas. And I believe there were some scary guys with guns in the room to make sure no one spit food into their napkins.
Also, keep in mind that food was scarce during that time. Even though the girls were potentially eating poisoned food, they were still filling their bellies.
Is there a spy thriller in this? In other words, if someone wanted to destabilize a regime, couldn’t someone poison the food taster to force a leader (say, Hitler) to purge his inner circle?
It’s a good idea! Although I think the inner circles of despots tend to be chaotic and go through purges as a matter of course. Not to put too fine a point on things, but have you seen the news over the last two years or so?
In all seriousness, you probably know that, late in the war, a small group of German military leaders knew that Hitler was leading them to disaster and tried to assassinate him. More than 7,000 Germans were arrested. Clearly not all of them were guilty but most of them were found guilty and shot by firing squad or strangled with piano wire while hanging from meat hooks. Their deaths were filmed and screened for the Fuhrer’s enjoyment in the evenings. Unfortunately, I don’t think you can ever fully destabilize a dictatorship when you still have the dictator.
Trump apparently has a food taster, too. If you were commissioned to write a one-act musical about the person with that job, what would be its title, what would happen in the show, and would Trump have an ice-skating number at the end?
In my one-act musical, Saturated Fat, Ivanka is her father’s food taster. Her conflict is heartbreaking: protect her father or get fat from fast food? Rarely has there been a drama of such consequence.
In terms of ice-skating, I think you are overestimating Trump’s ability to effectively pull off a low-cut, sequined onesie.