By Sarah Montague
"World leaders need to answer to artists." This was the rallying cry of Natalia Kaliada, artistic director of the Belarus Free Theatre, at a benefit for the embattled dissident troupe organized by the PEN American Center that was held at Le Poisson Rouge on Wednesday. She added "politicians do not have steps; they have just words."
Belarus Free Theatre is the little theater company that could, and the media have been quick to pick up on its story. A few weeks ago the members of the company were either in jail or in hiding, the targets of a crackdown by Belarus' government after recent election protests. Last week, they were in town for the Under the Radar festival at the Public Theater, but have used the trip as an opportunity to carry their battle into the public eye.
The company spearheaded (not a lightly chosen verb) a protest rally at the U.N. Wednesday morning, and the PEN event was originally intended to celebrate the willingness of artists to join together to protest injustice, said Kaliada. But early that day, the group had received word, in the form of a terse text message, that the husband of one of the actors had been arrested. So it was a taut, tearful, and defiant face that they turned to an audience of supporters at Le Poisson Rouge's cozy downstairs space.
In times of trouble, we are counseled to find something to cheer about, noted Sir Tom Stoppard, the Czech-born playwright who hosted the evening's event. For Stoppard, it was clearly the simple, unbelievable fact of the company's existence. For the company, it may have been the warm support of the literary and theatrical community. For the event, put on at short notice (a more elaborate affair had been staged at The Public earlier in the week), resembled nothing so much as an old-fashioned jazz rent party, like the kind musicians used to put together when one of their number needed help meeting the bills.
In this case, the "session" started with some heartrending music by violinist and vocalist Iva Bittova, followed by readings of poems by imprisoned Belarussian poet Vladimir Neklyaev. Then, a scene from Stoppard's disturbing "Cries From The Heart," read by Billy Crudup and Margaret Colin, showed a government official training a lawyer in the delicate art of replacing all the words we recognize as dealing with torture, intimidation, cruelty, or repression with words for foods. ("I want you to say," taunts the chillingly reasonable official, "it's not torture, it's pizza.") Authors E.L. Doctorow and Don DeLillo read passages from books ("City of God," "Mao II") that touched on cruelty, war, or degradation.
The evening concluded with a fierce performance by the Free Theater of the third part of a trilogy on life in Belarus called "Numbers." Five actors moved through a rapid succession of scenes that enacted a range of damning statistics. The three cheerful men muttering hesitantly and throwing their arms up in confusion? "70% of Belarussians have trouble expressing the idea of democracy." The woman who gives birth to, and then pops, a balloon? The country has a high rate of abortion, stillbirths, and childhood diseases. The buckets full of empty shoes: "over 1,200 people vanish in Belarus each year."
As the demoralizing, often shocking, statistics succeeded one another on the video screen, the audience ought to have been left numb with despair on behalf of a country so defined by pain, loss, violence, and neglect. Instead, the performance-filled with a fierce energy and supple beauty-brought catharsis and epiphany, if the cheers and wild applause were anything to go by.
In Samuel Beckett's "Waiting for Godot," the work's underlying nihilism is subverted by the sheer beauty of the language and the poignant souls of its characters. If you can write of the human condition, "Astride the grave and a difficult birth," then you have already triumphed over death. In the case of the Belarus Free Theater, if your company's brilliant work inspires others to stand for you and with you, in some sense no dictatorship can ever fully succeed.
Click the link above to hear for selections from the benefit. (Unfortunately, much of "Numbers" was mimed and so is not featured here).
"We truly believe that the world leaders need to answer to artists...politicians do not have steps; they just have words."-Natalia Kaliada
"If you believe in God's Judgement...then certain bacteria living in the anus of a particularly ancient hatchet fish at the bottom of the ocean are the recycled and fully sentient souls of Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Pol Pot."-E.L. Doctorow in "City of God."
"I want you to say, it's not torture, it's pizza."-Tom Stoppard in "Cries from the Heart."