In a gesture of solidarity and dissent, we’re gathering today to protest censorship. “Free Belarus,” a theater company performing in downtown’s Under the Radar Festival, has temporarily escaped suppression by fleeing Belarus for New York. Their play, “Being Harold Pinter,” is the runaway hit of the moment.
Today’s demonstration has been organized via text message: “PROTEST JAN 19@12P. RAIN OR SHINE. WE WILL NOT BE DETERRED. SPREAD THE WORD.” The Public Theater (which runs Under the Radar) is producing the event with Amnesty International. At noon, the scheduled starting time, about 200 very prompt people have gathered on East 67th and Lex. Some signs are homemade but most bear the trademark diagonal, block lettering of all Public Theater advertising. (Am I a cynic for thinking that this marketing continuity makes the whole protest look like an exercise in brand expansion?)
We’re a docile lot, we protestors. We file carefully onto our patch of sidewalk on the southern side of the street while photographers take their place to our north. It’s worth noting that we’re actually a whole block away from the Belarusian mission to the UN — permit shenanigans mean we can only shout to that most political of sites, the Hunter College Bookstore.
Still, the event has a feeling of urgency. Public Theater interns lead chants:
Intern: “What do we want?”
Us: “Human Rights!”
Intern: “When do we want it?”
When we tire of this call and response, we’re told to shout something that sounds like “Jeevay Belarus! Jeevay Belarus!” This is Belarusian, I guess; most of us just skip the “Jeevay” part and join in on “Belarus.” (Note to self: learn Belarusian for next year’s protest.)
The Police are out, and, ever to form, we all politely defer and go where we’re told. We don’t want to crowd the sidewalk, do we?
Under the Radar is always a colorful potpourri of theatrical varieties.
Triteness aside, this festival is pretty special. Some of my favorite theater has originated here. (A devised piece called “Architecting” takes this cake: A devastating mashup of Scarlet O’Hara beauty contests, urban renewal, and Tyvek, it’s the my go-to answer to that awful question, “What’s your favorite show?”)
The premise behind the Under the Radar is that you can
1 – see lots of
2 – truly contemporary
3 – cheap theater
4 – very quickly.
It’s performed over two weeks in January (theatrical doldrums for The Broad Way) at hoppin places like the Public, La Mama, and That Weird Art Gallery You Always Wanted to Check Out But Never Did Because You Were Always in a Rush.
THE PLAY AT ISSUE: “BEING HAROLD PINTER”
Didn’t see it. Oops. But this whole fuss proves that the theater surrounding a play can mean just as much as its content. Or even more.
THE PUBLIC THEATER and SOCIAL JUSTICE
Despite its geographic schizophrenia, Under the Radar is actually produced the Public Theater. (To learn the story of this showbiz powerhouse, check out Kenneth Turan’s delicious interview-biography, “Free For All.” Part backstage gossip, part psychological study, it sketches the shows and personalities that formed this most vital of New York theaters, namely founder extraordinaire Joe Papp.)
Standing at the Free Belarus protest (Jeevay Belarus! Jeevay Belarus!) you have to believe Papp would find the whole thing positively heady. As a reading of “Free for All” will attest, everything the Public produces embraces the political. Sometimes it’s explicit (this season’s “In the Wake” and “That Hopey Changey Thing”), other times it’s more contextual (Shakespeare’s plays or “Gatz”). The Public’s results are as varied as other theater’s, but you’re never unaware that what you’re seeing is supposed to mean something profound to today.
We’re chanting and clapping and following police protocol when out come the celebrities, namely playwright Tony Kushner and Artistic Director Oscar Eustis. Because the city has denied them use of a bullhorn (?!) they’re relying on diaphragmatic support, and neither Kushner nor Eustas has any. One can only imagine that Eustas talked about the Bush administration, and Kushner talked about Marx. Y’know, timeless topics.
DEUS EX MACHINA
When one o’clock strikes, we’re ordered to disband. Some cross the street to buy “The Dragon Girl With the Tattoo” at the bookstore, while others throw their autograph books at Tony Kushner. I say goodbye to the friends I ran into, snap some pictures, and head on over to Bloomingdales. After all, why waste a trip to the Upper East Side?
“Being Harold Pinter” is going on a world tour. Free Belarus’ extensive press coverage means it will get to perform, freely, without state suppression, for a global audience. Freedom from censorship… the theater world (and I mean World) is giving it what it’s been fighting for.
But there’s no place like home.
The Times asked one of Free Belarus’ actors when or even if they’ll be able to return to Belarus. The sad, dry answer: “I think it will be obvious what the answer is this month.”