Belarus Free Theatre can't go home again-if the members of the company return to Belarus, they fear they'll be arrested. They appeared in New York this week for the Under the Radar Festival, a benefit at the Public Theater and a benefit held by the PEN American Center but had to be smuggled out of the country to do so. Their cause was boosted by a one-act play written by Tom Stoppard.
The Public Theater's Artistic Director Oskar Eustis announced at the Benefit, co-hosted by playwrights Tony Kushner and Stoppard, that the troupe will be performing in Chicago in February. There, they will be supported by the Goodman, Northwestern University and the League of Chicago Theatres.
The company performed "Being Harold Pinter" at the Public Theater Benefit. This work, adapted and directed by Uladzimir Shcherban, merges sections of Pinter's plays and his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, all performed with inventive physicality, demonstrating the visceral ugliness of torture. In one section, guest artists including Lou Reed, Kevin Kline, Mandy Patinkin, Laurie Anderson and Olympia Dukakis read segments of eyewitness accounts of brutality in Belarus. The Public and Amnesty International USA also organized a peaceful protest outside of the Mission of the Republic of Belarus to the United Nations at noon yesterday.
Stoppard also hosted the PEN Benefit at Le Poisson Rouge. He has, he said, known the company for five years, and watching them persevere has been inspiring.
But, said Belarus Free Theater's artistic director Natalia Kaliada, the bad news continues: earlier that day the husband of one of the actresses in the company had been arrested.
Kaliada founded Belarus Free Theatre in 2005 with her husband, Nikolai Khalezin, General Director and Producer. They brought two shows, "Being Harold Pinter," and "Zone of Silence," to New York as part of the Under the Radar Festival. The plays ran for two sold-out weeks at La Mama.
One month ago, Alexander Lukashenko was reappointed as president of Belarus in elections that were widely seen as fraudulent. He has since extended a crackdown on his rivals, arresting and detaining hundreds of activists and journalists.
The PEN American Center's benefit included performances and readings by violinist/performance artist Iva Bittova, Don DeLillo, E.L. Doctorow and the company themselves. There was also a short, absurdist political drama (starring Billy Crudup )involving an administrator in an oppressive regime insisting that the human rights counsel refer to torture as "pizza." Stoppard, who wrote the brief play, read the stage directions.
Stoppard opened the evening by reading a message from Michael Douglas, who is of Belarussian descent.
Belarus Free Theatre performed the third section of their work "Zone of Silence," entitled "Numbers." In it, Kaliada explained, the audience would see the actors express through their bodies the numbers that we would see. These were statistics about dire circumstances in Belarus. In one scene, an actress performed a folk dance in national costume and then stripped to a bikini, while a projection flashed that "thirteen modeling agencies, in cooperation with the Ministry of Culture, sold young Belarussian women into sexual slavery."
For more information on activism in Belarus, you can go here.