Vitebsk on the Charles

A Belarusian theater at Harvard


Arsenal Center for the Arts in Watertown is new, designed in the neo-Harvard red-brick style, spit clean, brightly lit and empty. I rush through the door on a Thursday night, and even though the performance was prominently featured in the daily entertainment guide of the metropolitan newspaper, the guy in the box-office window motions me along through the doors. Tickets are sold from a table on the side, like at ethnic events. “You are affiliated with Harvard?” asks the distributor, more in the affirmative than as a real question. I am embarrassed. “No, but my son is,” I blurt out surprising myself. No matter: I have to pay the full price, double the Harvard rate.

Hurrying upstairs to the auditorium I face no competition for seats. The performance hall with stadium seating for 400 contains exactly five spectators. I look at my watch: there are still five minutes to go. Maybe those Harvard types will arrive in bulk just in the nick of time. A couple in their 60’s sitting in the center of the fourth row seems definitely from Harvard. They discuss the coming show and the quirks of Belarusian with two younger gentlemen a few rows behind. The gentlemen speak with an accent and apparently know Belarusian, while the Harvard man mentions Russian and some other Slavic languages, but complains that Belarusian may be beyond his reach. Assuming a knowledgeable audience, I wonder aloud how a Polish-Belarusian activist from the second of the plays to be presented manages to be killed by Stalin (something described in the newspaper). The Harvard man explains that he was eliminated in that brief interlude when Western Belarus was taken by Stalin but not yet by Hitler. (He is wrong, as becomes obvious later). The fifth attendee is a short bald man with a short neat beard. He is clearly a native Russian speaker. A tall girl walks in and starts speaking Russian with a slight accent. The goateed chap answers her question, asks where she learned such a good Russian (at Harvard and on exchange in Yaroslavl – because she “loves Russian culture”), and volunteers in turn that he used to be the artistic director of the very theater performing tonight, but a very long time ago back in Vitebsk. This peaks my interest. I tell him that I am also of Vitebskian ancestry and would like to talk to him during the intermission. He is so eager to discuss this topic as well that he asks my last name, which of course is not familiar to him. I explain that the last bearer of this name left Vitebsk in 1925.

The stage in the meantime is black and empty, except for the real yellow leaves strewn all over the floor and a table in the middle with a dozen white toy buildings and churches several inches tall arranged as a cityscape. None looks like a synagogue.

The tall girl serves as an interpreter for the theater crew. She announces that the action has been delayed for a few minutes, but will start in another minute or so, if the public does not mind. All six of us nod in agreement.

The lights go off revealing a tableau-vivant of nine actors, all except one clothed in black with white trimmings. The one exception is a young girl in a white lace dress. The floor and the background are black and the toy houses are white. Thus begins a play about a magic realist with one of the wildest multicolored palettes of the twentieth century – Mark Chagall.

Short scenes from Chagall’s childhood and adolescence follow in rapid succession in the manner of sketch based performances that off-duty theater folk used to produce back in the days of Soviet stagnation, or from a different frame of comparison, modeled on Saturday Night Live but with gravitas. Epoch-specific references to “fishmongers becoming Trotskys”, and blunt anti-Semitic remarks from Belarusian neighbors of the Chagalls are heard, even as the young Moishe seems to be infatuated with their daughter. She is the one dressed in all white, while the famous Bella, in black, mills aimlessly in the background during the interethnic dalliance. Little toy buildings get moved around, then go down on the floor where the whole cast dances half Slavic half Jewish steps. All ends well as the neighbors become best friends (apparently a green goat, elevated by Moishe to a treasured painting in some rich man’s mansion plays a key role in reconciliation). The goat, however, never shows up to relieve the black-and-white monotony, The white girl drops out, Bella drops in, Moishe, renamed Mark, reaches the sky and dies a French genius lifting his native shtetl along with the whole of Mother Belarus.

During the intermission, one of the actors, free in the second half, comes out and joins the old Vitebsk fellow. He looks a bit like a village heavy with a typical mustache. This is the present artistic director of the theater. I am most curious what a performance like this may mean in today’s Belarus. I know that in Russia, the word Jew has ceased to be shameful by its very sound, at least in the mainstream media. His response is that they had 150 performances back home and all were sold out. The play about Chagall is apparently very popular both domestically (see Vitebsk web sites where the homeboy is number one attraction, way ahead of Malevich and the great Repin, who apparently also hung out in Vitebshchina) and internationally. They got a prize for it at the Edinburgh Festival, among others.

The lights go off again. The other play, called simply “The Arrest”, is about a Belarusian nationalist – Polish communist, first imprisoned in Poland in 1927 and then pushed to Russia in 1933 where he was, of course, promptly executed. It is full of ambiguities and its point is not really clear to me. For instance, Ivan Susanin’s aria is played at the end of the play, when the hero is interrogated by the KGB! I asked the director about it later and he said that the author, whose first name is Sakrat, had some quirky ideas and was not sure who to hate more – the Poles or the Russians. (I personally think that the choice between Pilsudski’s Sanacia and Stalin’s chistka is pretty clear). Superimposed on the sketch theater were a lot of long discourses by the protagonist, Branislau Tarashevich, on what it means to be a Belarus, about who was one, and what is Belarusian culture after all. As a member of the Sejm Tarashevich was fighting for Belarusian schools in the East of Rzec Pospolita, although even in the play it was obvious that his pro-Soviet party membership was of much more concern to his interrogators. Still, he proclaimed that Mickiewicz was a Belarus who just adopted and enhanced Polish culture (the great poet indeed grew up and devoted his most famous poem to the area of Novogrudek, now in Grodno district, although he called it Lithuania). Tarashevich’s greatest insult to his Polish tormentors was that Copernicus had in fact been a German (who knows who is who if you dig deep enough). He just failed to claim that Chopin was French to complete the demolition of Polish claims to culture.

By the end of the play, finally in the eastern paradise of genuine Belarusian culture he had so admired from afar, the patriotic Branislau is branded as a Polish and German spy. His Belarusian identity thus denied, the specter of Susanin, mentioned above, inexplicably rises up. All this is topped by some celestial hymn in Belarusian – the only piece of the performance I completely did not understand in the original (between Russian and Polish I learned earlier in the year I could understand 95% of the rest of the verbal part).

The full name of the theater is The National Academic Yakub Kolas Theater of Vitebsk. Yakub Kolas, a Belarusian classic much decorated and honored under Stalin, was, with his almost identical twin, Yanka Kupala, somewhat of a counterpart to Shevchenko for Ukraine, except a hundred years later. Ironically, I found that his real name was Mickiewicz!   

I was still eager to learn more about today’s Belarus and continued the conversation after the end of the performance. In the dictatorship connection, the current Vitebsk theater director said that Lukashenko prettified towns and roads quite a bit and that the majority of the public, especially pensioners and the like are grateful to him for the stability. There is somewhat of a grumble among the intelligentsia, but muffled (of course!). At this point the director turned to the only middle-aged and Jewish-looking lady in the troupe (the rest were young pretty blondes) and asked her to weigh in as a “specialist on public opinion about Lukashenko”. The lady grew very irritated and started barking: “Why do people everywhere [in the West, interjected the director] keep asking about Lukashenko? Everybody loves him. What grumbling intelligentsia?” and so on. To which I noted that in all democratic countries I know, the majority of the people usually disapprove of their government at least at some point after the election. But we had to clear the hall and the “Jewish” lady (who incidentally played a Belarusian initially anti-Semitic neighbor of the Chagalls in the play) was in no mood to continue this conversation. At another point, the current director, who really looks like a Belarus (or maybe a Pole, as the type is not too different), said that Lukashenko is a very clever manipulator and a physically intimidating guy – a former hockey player!

By this time the actors had changed and poured out into the lobby. The audience, except for the former director and me had long since vanished. The tall interpreter was trying to organize transportation but could not count on enough cars. Somebody suggested that maybe a certain Jim could make several shuttle runs rather than just one. The tall girl muttered in Russian: “Jim is no taxi driver for you”. The old director admonished her for excessive harshness. “Some people don’t understand polite talk,” retorted the girl, well versed in the intricacies of the mysterious eastern European culture that she loved so much.