Play Synopsis

It is the 1993 holiday season in Billings, Montana. Members of the Hanley family are decorating their Christmas tree and the Schnitzer family gathers to light their Hanukkah menorah. [Optional song - That's What I Love About]. But there is an unsettling presence amidst the holiday cheer. Later, as young Isaac Schnitzer sleeps, a rock is thrown through his bedroom window, smashing the menorah perched on the windowsill. 

Photo by June Ballinger
Workshop production of a previous version of the play at Passage Theatre in Trenton, N.J.

Isaac and his sister Rachael cannot understand why someone would do such a thing. But their parents, Dr. and Mrs. Schnitzer, think they know and immediately call the town’s Chief of Police, Wayne Inman. Chief Inman comes to the Schnitzers' home and it is soon revealed that there have been a series of hate crimes in this normally peaceful, pleasant town. The acts of hate have been perpetrated by an elusive group of skinheads and neo-Nazis who have targeted the town’s minorities including African Americans, mixed race families and Jews.  

"Isaac" and "Teresa" in the Venture Theatre Workshop Production of Paper Candles
The Billings Gazette
/Bob Zellar

Isaac tries to understand why there are people who hate him and want to do him harm, simply because he is Jewish, and why they hate others just because of what they believe or the color of their skin. Chief Inman resolves to get the entire Billings community involved in taking action against the bullies and bigots who are trying to frighten and intimidate the town’s minorities.  

Meanwhile, Mrs. Schnitzer decides to go on television to tell the town what has happened to her family. The next day, during the T. V. interview which takes place in Isaac’s bedroom, Mrs. Schnitzer points to the pieces of shattered glass and tells the reporter how it made her think of Kristallnacht, which occurred in Germany, in 1938, when many good Germans stood by and did nothing as hate rampaged around them.  

Shortly afterwards, at school, Isaac tells his classmates about the holiday of Hanukkah, which celebrates the victory of the Jewish Maccabees who fought, in ancient times, for religious freedom. The class joins in to re-enact their own version of the events, which leads to a discussion about what it is like for someone to be “different” and the victim of bullies. They also talk about what each of them can do to help. [Optional song – We Hold The Compass]  

That night, there is a special town meeting called by Chief Inman and Mrs. Margaret MacDonald, Director of the Montana Association of Churches. The goal is to focus on what the town can do to try to stop the acts of hate. During the meeting, some of the town citizens talk about how they have been targets of hate. Then, Chief Inman relates what happened when he was the Assistant Chief of Police in Portland, Oregon, and a group of skinheads began making threats against the town’s African American community.  

Finally, Margaret MacDonald tells the townspeople the story of events that occurred in Denmark, in 1943, when the Nazis tried to single out the Danish Jews. Mrs. MacDonald, inspired by the actions of the Christian Danes, has an idea about how Billings can fight back against the hate crimes. [Optional song – We Are Denmark] But the meeting is interrupted by yet another instance of rock throwing and shattered glass.  

[Optional Scene – The next day Jeff, a skinhead, turns up at the Schnitzer home and a dramatic confrontation ensues.] 

Performance of "Chutzpah" song at Not In Our Town Conference in Bloomington, Illinois

Later, Isaac talks at school with his best friend, Teresa Hanley, who is a Christian. She wants to know what she can do to help, but Isaac is afraid that she, too, might be targeted. However, Teresa insists that sticking up for one another is what friendship is all about.  

After Isaac leaves, she is confronted by a group of bullies who resent the attention that Isaac and the other minority town residents are receiving. Teresa defends Isaac and vows to do whatever she can to be a good friend. [Optional song – If I Wanted.] That night, at dinner, Teresa and her family try to decide what they, as a family, should do to help the Schnitzers and the other targeted families in town.  

Cast from performance at Whitwell Middle School, Whitwell, Tennessee

The next day, Isaac and Teresa talk about the possible consequences of Teresa's actions. [Optional song – That's What Friends Do]. Two optional scenes follow. In the first scene, Jeff and his cohorts talk about what they are planning to do next. In the second scene, across town, Mrs. MacDonald attempts to encourage the town to take a stand against the acts of hate. [Optional song – Chutzpah]  

The day after, Isaac rushes home after school to tell his parents about a frightening incident that has occurred at the local Catholic high school. Afterwards, the family leaves for a special Hanukkah service at the synagogue, where the Rabbi and the members of the congregation must make an important decision. Later, Dr. and Mrs. Schnitzer take Isaac and Rachel for a walk through the streets of Billings so they can see, firsthand, how their town has responded to the haters and bigots. This gives Isaac the courage to make an important decision of his own, as the cast comes together for the finale. [Optional song – Paper Candles in Our Windows]

To view excerpts from the script, please click here.


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