By Kay Kipling
No matter what artists in the United States might have to say about their artistic freedoms or censorship, there’s a shocking truth to this quote from The Telegraph, London: “It is easy to forget that there are still parts of the world where putting on a play represents an act of political courage.”
That quote refers to the work of Belarus Free Theatre, now presenting Minsk 2011: A Reply to Kathy Acker, as part of RIAF, in the Cook Theatre. This company consists of playwrights and performers who have faced arrest, harassment and exile due to the dictatorship in their native country, Belarus (a part of the former Soviet Union). In Minsk, the capital city, performances can be held only secretly, more or less underground; it’s also a city where such commonplaces as gatherings of three or more people, hand clapping in the street and even sharing a glance between strangers for more than a few seconds are forbidden and punished.
In the face of all that, Minsk, 2011 is not the grim piece of political commentary you might expect. That is to say, it is certainly about the repression there, but it also about a longing for home and family and a spirit that refuses to be quenched. And there are welcome flashes of humor.
The setup of the show (which runs approximately 90 minutes) is a series of vignettes: some monologues, some short scenes with full cast, focused on a range of people and situations in Belarus. There is an interrogation in a police station, of a frightened gay man holding a rainbow flag; the personal story of a college student, Katya, who dreams of dancing in a nightclub but whose fears lead her to drinking, smoking and anorexia; and the aftermath of an explosion in a subway station that appears to have been an act of terrorism. The actors speak Russian, but English surtitles make it easy to follow the action, and the emotions are quite clear on their faces and in their movements.
One aspect of the piece centers on the notion of scars being “a man’s decoration” and sexually attractive, in which case, one performer says, “Minsk must be the sexiest city in the world.” There is one episode of nudity, not for sexual titillation but rather to display the naked reality of a woman (or country’s) plight when all is taken away, as an actress is eventually painted with a black substance, wrapped in white paper, and taped shut, all the while shouting out her defiance.
Near the end of the performance, the actors sit on chairs facing the audience and, identified by their real first names, speak their feelings about Minsk, both bad and good. It’s a reminder that there are real people, every day, living under circumstances most of us can only imagine.
Belarus Free Theatre will perform again this evening, Friday evening, and Saturday afternoon.