Belarus Free Theatre makes its way to the United States in January, despite several police raids last month at underground performance spaces in the capital of Minsk. The raids came on the eve of the company bringing its newest political piece, Minsk, 2011: A Reply to Kathy Acker, to Chicago Shakespeare Theater tonight, January 30-February 3, 2013. To foster dialogue and encourage participation, all tickets for this six-performance limited engagement are $20. The piece, which explores the sexual brutality and oppression by the totalitarian regime in Belarus, is one of many award-winning productions by the company, celebrated for creating art based upon the unjustly persecuted people of Belarus.
Belarus Free Theatre was formed in 2005 by Natalia Koliada and Nikolai Khalezin to provide an opportunity for commentary on conditions in their country-one of the last totalitarian governments in Europe. Enduring constant police interference, arrests and violence under the authoritarian rule of President Lukashenko, the company must produce their work in Belarus in secret. Members of the company have lost their jobs, been imprisoned, blacklisted and in some cases, exiled from their home. Yet Belarus Free Theatre continues to develop internationally acclaimed work with the support of artists and theater companies around the world.
Artists from London to Los Angeles have raised their voices in support of Belarus Free Theatre. In response to last month's raids, several prominent English actors, including Ralph Fiennes, Alan Rickman, Joanna Lumley, Mark Rylance and Simon Callow, appealed to British Prime Minister David Cameron, urging him to use his political power to help free Belarusian political prisoners. The effort was organized through the Free Belarus Now project, a global campaign for the human rights of the Belarusian people. British playwright Tom Stoppard recently told The Guardian that "democracies ought to be trying to make democracy contagious," noting his admiration for the campaigners. "They are trying to remind the world at large that the Belarus problem hasn't gone away-it's gotten worse."
Belarus Free Theatre returns to Chicago for the first time since its American premiere of Being Harold Pinter at The Public Theater's Under the Radar Festival in January 2011, which earned the company an Obie Award. Following the New York premiere, the company would have been forced to return to Belarus without a subsequent U.S. engagement, placing its members at great risk. In an unprecedented Chicago theater initiative, Chicago Shakespeare Theater joined Goodman Theatre, Northwestern University, and the League of Chicago Theatres to present performances of Being Harold Pinter in Chicago January 27-February 20, 2011, allowing Belarus Free Theatre to stay in the country while company members sought asylum from persecution at home.
Minsk 2011: A Reply to Kathy Acker, devised, written and performed by Belarus Free Theatre, and conceived, directed and adapted by Vladimir Shcherban, combines the company's distinctive mix of experimental theater with real-life testimony and biting satire. Revealing a sexually repressed society and lamenting for the city that has lost its way, the production and its artists pine for a beloved home that has turned ugly. Taking its inspiration from the late American postmodernist writer Kathy Acker, the work addresses Belarusian society through the prism of sexuality, telling the stories of a series of exploited individuals. Following the Fringe First Award-winning performances in Edinburgh in 2011, the production moved to a critically acclaimed run at London's Young Vic in 2012 before making its scheduled U.S. premiere in New York and continuing on to Chicago Shakespeare Theater later this month.