Support for Belarus Free Theater Includes Rally, Benefit, and Chicago
On December 19, a presidential election in Belarus that international observers said was fraudulent sent protesters into the streets, including members of the Belarus Free Theater. The troupe managed to evade the official repression that put down the protests and leave their country, and after a widely-praised two-week run at the Under the Radar alternative theater festival, they have remained in New York, where on Wednesday, to mark one month since the questionable vote and crackdown, they led another protest, this one outside the Belarussian mission to the United Nations.
This time, though, there was no repression. Instead, Natalia Kolyada and Nikolai Khalezin, the leaders of the company, were joined by Oskar Eustis of the Public Theater, playwright Tony Kushner and members of 30 other New York theater groups. “Art can speak to tyranny, art can speak to injustice,” Mr. Kushner said after reading a passage from “Being Harold Pinter,” the play the Belarussian troupe performed at Under the Radar, and condemning what he called “the monstrous policies” of the government of Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, the president of Belarus since 1994.
Though confined to a space almost a block away from the Belarussian mission and deprived of the right to use a bullhorn, the demonstration was not without theatrical flourishes. Some protesters placed black gags around their mouths, to symbolize the stifling of freedom of expression in the former Soviet republic; one brandished a poster that condemned Mr. Lukashenko as “the last Stalin in Europe” and showed his face morphing into that of the Soviet tyrant; and others chanted slogans like “Long Live Belarus” in both English and Belarussian.
“We are here representing ourselves, our institution and our profession,” Mr. Eustis said in an interview before the demonstration’s noon start. “This is one of the rare cases in which a theater group is the spokesman of an entire people, and it is our job to get behind them and amplify their voices.”
On Monday night, the Public hosted a special benefit production of “Being Harold Pinter” with a group of guest actors that raised $25,000 for the Belarus troupe. During a section of the play in which letters from political prisoners are read, ten performers — Mandy Patinkin, Kevin Kline, Olympia Dukakis, Lily Rabe, Linda Emond, Josh Hamilton, Stephen Spinella, Lou Reed, Laurie Anderson, and Philip Seymour Hoffman — stepped onto the stage en masse to deliver the often wrenching testimonies.
In an interview after the benefit, Mr. Patinkin, who is rehearsing “Compulsion” at the Public, said that performing alongside the Belarussian actors was sobering. “We as Americans have no idea what’s happening in the real world,” he said. “The privilege of our freedom can only be earned by attending to people whose freedom is in jeopardy.”
On Wednesday evening, writers and actors assembled for another benefit, this time at Le Poisson Rouge in Greenwich Village. The event, which had the support of the PEN American Center, a champion of free expression worldwide, was hosted by the British playwright Tom Stoppard, who praised the Belarus Free Theater’s members for their “courage and persistence, not to mention their extraordinary gifts” and read a letter of support from actor Michael Douglas, who recalled his own family’s origins in Belarus.
The novelists E.L. Doctorow and Don DeLillo also participated, offering fragments of works at least tangentially related to the political themes the Belarus Free Theater raises. Mr. DeLillo read a section from his novel “Mao II” set in war-ravaged Beirut, while Mr. Doctorow read a passage of “City of God” in which he imagines the “fully sentient and recycled souls” of Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot trapped in “the electric anus of a particularly ancient hatchet fish at the bottom of the ocean.”
Ms. Kolyada, who has met in Washington with Senate staffers and representatives of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, said that the troupe will soon go to Chicago, where the Goodman Theater has scheduled a run of “Being Harold Pinter” for the month of February, and that it also has invitations to perform in Hong Kong and London. But will the group’s high profile in protests so enrage the government that the company will not be able to go back home? “I think it will be obvious what the answer is this month,” she replied.