The phenomenon of popular uprisings in distant lands (Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, Bahrain, Libya) provides us with dangerously smug feelings of complacency. Aren't we lucky. Aren't we free, here in the West.
Yet we have our own brands of bullying and oppression on our shores, which need to be part of this conversation. More often than not, our government funds and supports the very people doing the bullying and oppression overseas (until it's no longer politically expedient), as if these regimes were our agents, if not our employees. This is problematic for those who favor feel-good/feel-bad indignation as a response to overt abuses abroad.
Human rights activist Natalya Kolyada and her playwright-journalist husband, Nikolai Khalezin, founded the Belarus Free Theatre in 2005. They performed in living rooms and in forests because — performing whatever they wanted — their theater didn't officially exist, and Khalezin was wanted by the KGB for writing politically inflammatory articles. Those who the authorities learned were participating in Belarus Free Theatre (such as the company's main stage director, Vladimir Scherban) lost their jobs in the State Theatre. (One could argue that at least they have a state theater that actually provides jobs, which is more than we provide to our artists.)
"We weren't presenting political works," Kolyada explains in a phone interview from Chicago, but "personal stories, stories about childhood, about outcasts."
(Chicago's Goodman Theatre is presenting BFT's production of Being Harold Pinter. The Global Theatre Project is presenting a star-studded staged reading of that work here on Friday night, at Los Angeles Theatre Center, as a benefit for Belarus Free Theatre.)
The Belarus Free Theatre premiered with British playwright Sarah Kane's 4.48 Psychosis. Kolyada says other works dealt with the taboo themes of bigotry, homophobia and miscegenation in Belarus. The underground theater drew the early support of overseas patrons such as Vaclav Havel and Tom Stoppard.
Presidential elections were held in Belarus on Dec. 19, 2010. The following day (after many opposition candidates had been physically threatened and beaten), the government announced that President Alexander Lukashenko had been re-elected with 80 percent of the vote, when exit polls showed the number closer to 30 percent. Charges of election fraud led to street demonstrations, including one in Minsk's central October Square, in which Kolyada and Khalezin participated. (After that demonstration was dispersed by authorities, it moved to Independence Square.) Late in the evening, Kolyada took the podium and read a prepared statement by Havel.
Within minutes, police and paramilitary units swept through, beating protesters indiscriminately, teenagers and old people, before arresting hundreds, including Kolyada and Khalezin.
"There was snow on the streets," Kolyada recalls. "And what was most striking was the sight of all the red blood draining into the snow. And the boots. Boots everywhere."
(The police removed the boots of their detainees in order to strike their exposed feet with batons.)
Kolyada says that after someone in the police van complained that an older woman needed a seat (which was not provided), the guard told the old woman, "After we're through with you, you'll be thinking of the Nazis as a pleasant dream."
The protesters were kept on gender-segregated floors for 18 hours, ordered to stand facing a wall with their hands behind their backs, deprived of water, food and the use of a toilet, Kolyada says.
Due to an almost comical error of misidentification, Kolyada was released the next day with an administrative fine. With the help of New York's Public and La MaMa theaters, the Under the Radar Festival, Amnesty International and the U.S. Embassy in Minsk, Kolyada was given refuge in New York, and has since met with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, senators Lamar Smith (R-Texas) and Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Republican House Speaker John Boehner. Kolyada also testified before Congress earlier this year.
Never mind moves to slash our own nonpartisan National Endowment for the Arts by 25 percent, if not to gut it completely along with National Public Radio; never mind the young American playwrights for whom almost all forms of subsidy to see their work produced, let alone written, have been decimated. Let's look, for a moment, at what happens when somebody tests their right of free expression here. They're free to spout whatever they want through a megaphone on a street corner, or the Internet, without fear of arrest. If they gather a few supporters for a rally, however, they must obtain a permit — a discretionary decision by our own authorities. When political protests here involve thousands of people, the protesters are systematically cordoned behind fences, often miles from the location of the political convention or debate being protested, and beyond the range of TV cameras — a technique similarly employed in more explicitly oppressive regions of the world, usually in the name of public safety.
Then there's the larger issue of thought control — the drowning-out effect of a systematic barrage of propaganda (used on the state-owned television of oppressive regimes, and now similarly allowed on our corporate-owned TV via unrestricted campaign contributions).
"It's better here," said Bill Maher recently on his HBO show, comparing our human rights to the rights of women in Muslim countries. Not so, replied guest Tavis Smiley, citing how women here earn 80 cents to every dollar earned by men, among other inequities.
"If you have a knife three inches in your back," Smiley argued (I'm paraphrasing), "it may be better than having a knife nine inches in your back. But you've still got a knife in your back."
Both men are right. To be free, first we have to be hypocrisy-free. And that's the paradox of grappling with atrocities overseas.
Our complacency toward the violence swirling within and immediately around us forms the crux of Tim Crouch's fascinating performance piece The Author, commissioned by London's Royal Court Theatre and presented through this weekend at the Kirk Douglas Theatre.
Like Crouch's An Oak Tree, which the Odyssey Theatre hosted last year, Crouch (with co-director Karl James) grapples theatrically with the creation of theater and of our willingness to suspend disbelief, well beyond the theater walls — such as the pretenses that we're free and rational and cozy and safe and humane.
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Two banks of bleachers face each other, with barely a corridor to pass between them. The four actors (Crouch, Chris Goode, Vic Llewellyn and Esther Smith) sit parked in the bleachers amidst the audience, and the purpose of the event seems to drift pointlessly at the start. Goode, portraying a Royal Court Theatre subscriber, gushes with an enthusiasm that borders on stupidity at the anticipation of waiting for something to happen in the theater (in which there is no stage). Crouch then pipes in with an erotic account of visiting a water-flotation treatment after a trauma that's going to emerge as the story's core. Smith portrays the "actress" who, in the "play" that's only recalled but never enacted, plays a girl molested by her father (played by Llewellyn). Smith, like Goode, conveys a gooey, perky warmth. Smith even shows snapshots of her "real-life" daughter to her neighbors in the audience — a gesture swimming in goodwill, and which ultimately emerges as perverse.
Can't reveal more details without ruining the experience, other than to say the piece's playfulness is itself a suspension of pornographic horrors that lurk in the society we subscribe to, if we have an Internet connection.
BEING HAROLD PINTER | Staged reading presented by the GLOBAL THEATRE PROJECT, to benefit the Belarus Free Theatre | LOS ANGELES THEATRE CENTER, 514 S. Spring St., dwntwn. | Fri., Feb. 25, 7:30 p.m. | theglobalproject.org/gala-benefit
THE AUTHOR | By TIM CROUCH | Presented by CENTER THEATRE GROUP at the Kirk Douglas Theatre | 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City | Wed.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sat., 4 p.m., Sun., 6:30 p.m. | Through Feb. 27