Belarus Free Theater has a single goal: to tell the story of political injustice and persecution in this Soviet-style dictatorship, created in the aftermath of the dissolution of the USRR and led since 1991 by the authoritarian regime of Alexander Lukashenko. In the nearly 10 years I’ve been following the company’s work, that environment has always seemed distant, thanks to a paucity of reporting from the country but mostly because of the strength of democracy around the world. After the past week of revelations regarding Russian interference in the recent US presidential elections, and the refusal of the incoming government to condemn that, I had a very different feeling watching BFT’s Time of Women, a play that looks back at Belarus’ rigged presidential elections in December 2010 and the protest movement that landed three prominent activists in jail: journalist Iryna Khalip, editor Natalya Radina and activist Nasta Palazhanka. On the eve of our own women’s march against the incoming administration, these Belarusians’ sacrifices would be frightening if taken as a warning but their courage reads as an example .
Company founders Natalia Kaliada and Nicolei Khalezin, who wrote Time of Women (Kaliada directs), make it nearly impossible to remain at a remove from the subject: the audience is seated on benches in the tiny Shop Theatre at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts (as part of Under the Radar) with the actors at arms’ length. The intimacy is welcome – we could be in someone’s studio apartment, with a desk, a rug and a bed – although the set feels improvised compared to earlier productions, which created more distinct interior locations – the women’s cramped, bare cell, for example – and which used projected video. Nevertheless, the lack of visual background is a reminder that BFT is outlawed in Minsk, where they perform clandestinely in private homes with whatever set is presented to them; in that light, the minimalism serves more to heighten this production’s power.
In any case, the few set elements there are delineate three distinct locations – the office of their interrogator, Orlov, and the women’s shared cell at Minsk’s Amerikanka prison (named for the help of a Utah-based corrections consultant in the late 19th century – an ironic detail), separated by the living space of Natalya’s apartment. A 2011 calendar hangs on the wall, and the women gathered at New Years, one year after the protests, remember those events as they reenact them: their discussions about their fears for their parents (struggling in their absence) and husbands (imprisoned as well), their dreams for the future and the cruelty and brutality of Orlov as he pursues their confessions. Their husbands may face solitary confinement but the women develop a solid, nurturing community, as Iryna notes, which is the difference between hope and despair.
As always with BFT, the work has an urgency that can come only from living the events under consideration. Kaliada was herself arrested in the same protest, prompting her and her family to escape Belarus. The actors remain in Minsk, witnesses to the continuing oppression. They are sharp, vivid: Maryia Sazonava as an imperturbable Iryna, Maryna Yurevich as a determined Natalya and Yana Rusakevich as a shaken Nasta. Khalezin’s direction is matter-of-fact, so it never feels like they are acting a role: they are as natural as anything in relating these experiences they know so well, which is why the events they describe are so chilling. Their performances say: this is just the way it is in Belarus. They are persecuted by Kiryl Kanstantsinau as the repugnant and malignant Orlov; I could barely watch him as the investigator, shoveling instant noodles into his mouth with his nose right in the bowl like a dog, or crouched over his desk, head low, eyes intent, like a wolf about to pounce. No matter how many times the company comes to NYC, watching them still feels like stepping back into the Cold War.
Or, until this week. Now I wonder if the experience doesn’t echo the past so much as portend the future.
In this “time of women,” however, the moment is for living in the present. On the eve of another year, these three activists toast being alive, because that is the greatest act of resistance in a country as repressed as theirs. They also hint that the future of the resistance movement lies with women, so long at least as their men are in jail. “Democracy is threatened whenever we take it for granted,” President Obama reminded us in his farewell speech this week. Belarus Free Theater’s appearance is a living reminder of what we have, how lucky we are to have it, and what the stakes are if we don’t defend it. Women, take note.