Belarus Free Theatre wraps up Chicago stay with final show

  
  

Playing to sold out crowds, Belarus Free Theatre wraps up Chicago stay

  
 

Yana Rusakevich, Yana Rusakevich and Aleh Sidorchyk

This past Monday night, the Belarus Free Theatre gave its last Chicago performance of Being Harold Pinter to a packed house at the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre. Their world tour will now carry them to Hong Kong and London, a development they hardly anticipated when they first escaped from the Belarus secret police in January to perform in New York City for Under the Radar Festival, sponsored by Public Theatre. As artists on the run, they have one overriding mission—to alert the world to the conditions of torture, unlawful detention and disappearance occurring in “the last dictatorship in Europe” and to continue strong sanctions imposed on Belarus for its mass arrests of Alexander Lukashenko’s political opposition during post-election demonstrations on December 19 last year.

The applause they received upon entering the champagne reception afterwards echoed the standing ovation that crowned up their final performance in Chicago. While undoubtedly deserved, one couldn’t help feeling the inadequacy of what we were offering them–that what they needed most were not cocktails and hors d’oeurvres but a home free from the terrors of state oppression. The star presence of John Mahoney, Ora Jones, Phillip James Brannon, Stephen Louis Grush, and others who joined the actors onstage to read eye-witness accounts of KGB brutality paled before both the cast’s plight and their bold achievement.

Overwhelming our attention were names of the imprisoned and tortured, their images printed up on posterboards and lined in the lobby—Anatoly Lebedko, leader of the United Civil Party; journalists Natalya Radina and Irina Khalip; Andrei Sannikov, Vladimir Nekliaev and Nikolai Statkevich, opposition presidential candidates; Dmitri Bondarenko, European Belarus Movement coordinator; Maya Abramchik and Svetlana Nosova suffering leg and eye injury from being tortured and young Danik, whose parents are still in jail from the December crackdown. “These were the photographs that we made in time for the NYC performance in January,” said BFT director Vladimir Scherban. “Some of the people have been released from jail but are under house arrest now. As for the images of those tortured, these are just those photos that we could get to print.”

With the help of BFT co-founder Natalia Kaladia, I had managed to corner Scherban for an interview:

PL: So, how long will your tour continue from Chicago?

VS: We’ll be in Hong Kong for less than two weeks, then on to London. We’re planning to perform the play in Parliament. We hope so.

PL: So you have UK politicians helping you to set that up?

VS: We have good contacts with British artistic figures. And we hope to return here. We plan to continue our contacts with the Goodman Theatre, with the Public Theatre and the Baryshnikov Theatre in New York.

PL: Have you received enough funding from your performances here for the tour?

VS: (shrugs) We hardly knew we would be here when we arrived in New York. I suppose so—we’d plan on only 4 performances and how spontaneous to perform 14 in Chicago, fully sold out. So, this was very strange but also very pleasant situation that we could do this for Chicago audiences.

PL: How is your application for asylum in the US going?

VS: (shrugs) I really don’t know about asylum. It’s a big question whether that’s going to happen or not. We cannot re-enter our own country. Our members have already received threats or orders to return. We constantly receive threats in the form of our relatives and neighbors being called late at night by the police about our whereabouts. Several members have received invitations from the police to show up for interrogation.

Unfortunately, this [Belarus] government only understands sanctions, straightforward and unwavering sanctions. The last elections, only very harsh sanctions forced the president [Lukashenko] to release the opposition presidential candidates from jails. Discussions do nothing. During discussions, political candidates just become goods to sell America and the EU.

What you have to know about the demonstrations that took place on December 19th is that there was snow on the ground. After the police had stormed the crowd and assaulted the people, the snow was stained with blood. Then at university, students who were absent on the day of the demonstration were ordered to go for a medical check up and if they looked like they had been beaten up from the demonstration, they were expelled from school.

In some ways, it’s easier for us. We don’t fear this anymore. We’ve been beaten up, we’ve been arrested, we’ve lost our places at work—we’ve gotten used to working under pressure.

PL: What would you like people to take away most about your stay here?

VS: Well, a very big idea for everyone to understand is that we mean serious things. We’re not just about going around and telling our story. We are expecting Obama to be very precise about our situation and take a clear position against the Belarus government. This is what people should know: people are being beaten up, thrown in jail, and disappeared. [BFT co-founder] Nikolai [Khalezin] has had 9 friends disappeared in the last 16 years. The people you see on the posters who are in jail? They’re our friends, our audience.

PL: Anything else you’d like to say?

VS: Wish us luck!


UPDATE: Since the posting of this interview, the OSCE  – Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights – published its report on Belarus’s December presidential election, declaring that the election did not meet the criteria for being free and fair.


 

           
Maryna Yurevich, Yana Rusakevich, Nikolai Khalezin_thumb[1] Yana Rusakevich and Aleh Sidorchyk - Belarus Free Theatre - Being Harold Pinter_thumb[1]
Nikolai Khalezin, Maryna Yurevich and Yana Rusakevich_thumb[2] Being Harold Pinter by Belarus Free Theatre at Goodman Theatre_thumb[5]
     
     

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