Chances are you don’t know much about Belarus. Seldom featured in the news, the government of President Alexander Lukashenko would like to keep it that way, as the one Soviet republic that never cast off the mantle of KGB-style repression and propaganda. Even Putin-era Russians laugh off this landlocked, resource-less country as more backwards than their own, while former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice dissed it as one of the last remaining “outposts of tyranny” on the planet.
I learned a lot about this overlooked place, including that Russian joke, when I met the Belarus Free Theater in 2007. The company was only two years old, hadn’t won a single award and didn’t yet have famous fans like Mick Jagger, but they had just received a letter of support from the Nobel-winning writer Harold Pinter, which earned them admission to the Europe Theater Prize festivities that year, where I struck up a chance conversation with co-founders Natalia Koliada and Nikolai Khalezin. As they related to me firsthand the gripping and now much-reported story of the company’s persecuted, hand-to-mouth existence in Minsk, I knew I hadn’t heard the last of these slightly desperate looking provocateurs. Months later, in a disaffected Paris suburb, they didn’t disappoint, performing early shows — Generation Jeans, Technique of Breathing in A Vacuum and We. Self-Identification — for a tiny crowd of new converts to their subversive theater that, then and now, refuses to be cast as political but is still giving President Lukashenko a run for his money.
In Minsk 2011, their latest work, which brings BFT back to the Under the Radar Festival after a triumphant appearance there in 2011 (winning an Obie for their breakout play Being Harold Pinter), the ensuing years of well-deserved attention and international tours have not visibly altered the company’s agit-prop aesthetic or significantly changed their status back home, although they can certainly boast more time in detention. Still able to pride themselves on being Europe’s only clandestine theater, BFT never ceases to remind its growing public of the challenges free-thinking Belarusians face to merely survive, body and mind, in that backwater they call home.
As its title suggests, the show is a kind of snapshot — in the form of a series of potent vignettes — of life in Minsk in a telling year: the one that followed the government crackdown on opposition parties and their supporters after the rigged presidential elections of December 19, 2010 (Lukashenko, of course, remained in power). Subtitled A Response to Kathy Acker, the piece examines that political struggle as fought out in the underbelly of Minsk society — amidst homosexuals, erotic dancers, prostitutes and the like — to map, as Acker did in New York in the 1970s, the mating dance of sex and power in an urban landscape. In Minsk’s case, that city is so officially desexualized that, as the show’s opening tableau demonstrates, even meeting one’s girlfriend on a street corner is considered a seditious act.
Accustomed to performing in safe houses or even the woods to elude the authorities, BFT is a past master at making big statements with little means or fanfare. In Minsk 2011, a few chairs, a red carpet, a bucket of black paint and the raw bodies of its 10-member cast suffice to conjure up the nightclubs, subway cars, and government podiums where the body politics of modern Minsk are played out. The situations are dire, but not, except for a subway bombing, tragic, and irony rather than self-pity is their unifying tone: lap dancers perform for a government official in the hopes of avoiding the “pornographic” rating that would shut them down; a man shows off the “sexy” scars he earned resisting arrest or just fending off boredom in this grey, culture-starved burg; a Gay Pride participant thinks he’s been taken to the police for protection only to find himself in the lion’s jaws…
Clearly, the joke is on us all in Lukashenko’s farcical dictatorship, and BFT drives the punchline home by even alluding to the decision by Minsk’s mayor to force prostitutes to clear the streets after a snowstorm (why? to make their “workplace” clean and safe). Better suited to sitcom, such moments become, in the mordant language of BFT’s poetry, haikus of suffering and of rising above it all, like the “streetwalkers” who are lifted high on the shoulders of their male partners in a kind of freedom dance.
Director Vladimir Shcherban pulls strong performances — funny, grave, impassioned, matter-of-fact, kinky — from the largely university-age cast, whom, one feels with certainly from the show’s devised content, is hardly acting at all. Fact and fiction blur, indeed, in the show’s final scene, when the actors, each in turn, share what they love best about their country and why, without exception, all live there or wish they did, concluding with a Belarusian folk song for their beloved motherland.
After 80 minutes of scathing critique of all that is wrong in Belarus today, however, one can’t help but wonder at the source of this genuine nostalgia. In it’s almost eight years of walking a razor’s edge between survival and censorship, BFT is used to courting extremes – and does so with both brio and conviction – but the show’s message is more powerfully served by its penultimate tableau of a teenage protestor stripped naked, painted black and “fingerprinted,” head to toe. When she re-emerges from her ordeal with the rage of youth and the oppressed, she threatens to make the government and its dogs run before her. Day has not yet dawned in Minsk in 2011, or in 2013 for that matter, but its Free Theater is still struggling with heroic might to emerge from that inky Belarusian night.