(This is the first of two posts about Belarus Free Theatre -- and it deals with a reading held in solidarity with the troupe on January 17, 2011 in Washington DC at Theater J. The second post, on Free Belarus Theatre's Being Harold Pinter, will follow in the next day or so.)
On January 17, I was one of 200 people who gathered at Theater J in Washington DC to show our solidarity with the embattled Belarus Free Theatre at a reading of their most recent work, Being Harold Pinter.
So what's the matter with Belarus anyway? Why is one of its theatre companies embattled?
Belarus is a tiny nation tucked in between five countries: Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania and Latvia. It's been under the one-man rule of Alexander Lukashenko for most of the past two decades. (It's often called the "last dictatorship in Europe.")
Lukashenko has the same sorts of soft totalitarian tools in his toolbox that those who were familiar with the career of former Yugoslav and Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic: ruthless exploitation of divide and conquer tactics in domestic politics, firm control of the media, and seeming "thaws" in his control largely orchestrated for international consumption (the EU, IMF, etcetera.). But Lukashenko also has been quicker to rely on repressive tactics than Milosevic ever was. The truncheon has been used a lot more freely and persistently in Belarus.
That's where a group like Belarus Free Theatre has entered the picture. The group has been a persistent thorn in the side of the Lukshenko regime. And in a country as small as Belarus, a theatre troupe can punch far above the weight we in the United States tend to assign to our own theatres.
Over the past six years, since the company made its debut with a production of Sarah Kane's Psychosis 4.48, Belarus Free Theatre has been pushed back against political and cultural repression in the country with smart, savage works performed under immense duress on samizdat principles: secret locations, last minute notifications of performances. And the Lukashenko regime has pushed back, jailing many members of the company and their audience.
The situation for the Belarus and the Belarus Free Theatre recently came to a head after fiercely disputed elections in mid-December. In the run-up to the elections, Lukashenko made superficial moves toward transparency and fairness in conditions for the vote, but the election day itself was fraught with numerous irregularities. And when the electoral commission commission controlled by the regime announced that Lukashenko had received almost 80 percent of the votes in a ten candidate field (NB: link from official Belarus media), citizens took to the streets to protest.
The protest triggered not only a vicious police assault on the crowd, but a sustained crackdown on all opposition in the country that intensified over the next few days. One of the theatre's leaders, Natalia Koliada, and other members of the company -- as well as some of the presidential candidates -- were among those swept up in the crackdown, while other members went to ground.
Koliada was released quickly (reportedly in error) and she made her way out of Belarus with other members of the company, which was slated to fulfill a committment to perform in New York earlier this month.
Which brings us to the present moment. Considering the blaze of publicity surrounding the election, Lukashenko's crackdown and the key role of the Belarus Free Theatre in publicizing what's happening in their country, all of its members would likely be arrested quickly upon their return. So the company member face a difficult decision that confronts all political artists, activists and dissidents who make it out: (a) Go back and face the harsh music of their present society (as Vaclav Havel did after 1968); or (B) ply their trade in exile -- either far from Belarus or in a neighboring country such as Lithuania or Latvia.
Fortunately, that decision is not quite so imminent. They've been given a monthlong residency in Chicago in February at the Goodman Theatre, with co-sponsorhip by the League of Chicago Theatres and Northwestern University And the readings of their work (such as that in Washington, DC on Monday night) are also raising much-needed cash and consciousness.
The DC reading was organized by Leigh Jameson, who worked indefatigably on behalf of Belarus Free Theatre here in Washington over the past month. She gathered a tremendous group of actors on short notice to do the reading of Being Harold Pinter. A few of them -- Eric Messner, Matthew R. Wilson and Mark Krawcyzk -- are good friends of mine who shined their usual bright selves. The rest of the cast -- Jameson, Ian Armstrong, Will Gartshore, Rana Kay and Marni Penning -- was equally passionate. Best of all, the entire ad hoc troupe was technically superb in handling the demands presented by the work of Harold Pinter -- who's a very difficult playwright indeed. And it's always good to see Jessica Lefkow, who was acting as Leigh Jameson's co-conspirator on the night.
I'm going to dig into Being Harold Pinter as a play in another post, but I'll end this introduction/celebration of a terrific night by pointing out two things:
(1) How wonderful it was that Theater J and its artistic director Ari Roth stepped up into the void to make the night happen in DC. Theater J relishes being in the mix, scrapping and provoking. They were at it again on January 17. They should be very proud that they stepped up -- as should their board and others involved with the company.
(2) Leigh Jameson is amazing. Here's why I admire what she did for Belarus Free Theatre. Lots of people have emotional responses to artists who are being persecuted for their work, and do nothing but think good thoughts and send out good karmic vibes. Leigh transmuted her initial response to Belarus Free Theatre's plight into an event that let so many of us express our solidarity and outrage. We in the DC theatre community and the region in general owe her an immense debt of gratitude.