A tribute to Belarus rebels

By Bob Hoover, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

As anti-government protests engulf Egypt, a revolt of a quieter kind is playing out in Pittsburgh and other cities.

These dissidents are from Belarus, formerly part of the U.S.S.R., and now a hard-line dictatorship led by Alexander Lukashenko since 1994.

Mr. Lukashenko fears these rebels so much he's had them arrested, fired from jobs and beaten, and has threatened their families.

Their crime? They're actors, members of the Belarus Free Theater.

After the company's co-founders were briefly detained following a massive street protest in Minsk, the capital, following Mr. Lukashenko's illegal power grab in December, the group fled to America. They're currently performing at the Goodman Theater in Chicago and Northwestern University after a well-received run in New York.

The Pittsburgh theater community displayed its solidarity with the Belarus company Monday in a gripping, powerful staging of its production, "Being Harold Pinter," before a full house at Bricolage Production Company's theater, Downtown.

Nineteen local actors led by Mark Staley read the Belarus work that's a combination of selections from Pinter's most political plays and real accounts of incidents in that nation. A portion of British playwright Carol Churchill's "Mad Forest" was included.

Tying the different sections together is a narration taken from Pinter's essays and his Nobel Prize acceptance speech. Mr. Staley performed that narration.

Then, to wrap up the reading with a personal emphasis, three Belarusians now in Pittsburgh, including the brother of company co-founder Natalia Koliada, offered their eyewitness testimony to the oppression in their country.

Steven E. Sokol, president of the World Affairs Council, co-sponsor of the reading, introduced them.

Yuri Koliada, who works at Aspire Auctions, was a journalist in Belarus until security forces "nearly beat me to death" in 1999, he said. He survived and made his way to Pittsburgh, even though he was ordered to sign a confession claiming he had beaten police officers.

According to Mr. Koliada, his sister's theater company, launched in 2005, was forced to stage plays in secret locations, often using weddings or birthday parties as a ruse. In response, the Lukashenko regime arrested the entire troupe and audience as well during one performance in 2007.

Olga Klimova of Minsk is a doctoral student in Slavic languages at the University of Pittsburgh whose family still lives in Belarus.

"They have very little idea about what is happening right in front of them because of state control of the media, especially newspapers," she said. Many older Belarusians have no access to the Internet and depend on print for their news, she added.

The third witness was Katya Stepanov, a sophomore at Carnegie Mellon University's drama school. Ms. Stepanov moved to Pittsburgh as a child in 1991 when her parents "escaped," she said. "We are not allowed to return."

All three played roles speaking from the audience in their native tongue and English to provide firsthand testimony drawn from victims of the Belarusian regime.

Afterward, Mr. Sokol said, "This is an exciting example of how art is often inspired by politics."

The actors were:

Larry John Meyers, Martin Giles, Michael Fuller, Matthew Gray, Jason McCune, Rich Venezia, Mr. Staley, Jarrod Digiorgi, Bricolage's Jeffrey Carpenter, Sheila McKenna, Holly Thuma, Lisa Ann Goldsmith, Karen Baum, Mark C. Thompson, Andrew Huntley, Lissa Brennan, Cassie Brehmer, Renee Rabenold and Justin DeWolf.

Tami Dixon, Bricolage artistic director, introduced the program.


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