Play about Belarus uprising on stage in Philly, and around the world

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Wilma Theater

The Wilma Theater on South Broad Street in Philadelphia (Nathaniel Hamilton/WHYY)

A play written and about the current, widespread civil unrest in Belarus is being performed by theater companies around the world, even while the turmoil sparked by the election six weeks ago continues to unfold.

This weekend, the Wilma Theater in Philadelphia will join dozens of companies around the world who have presented, or are planning to present, the play as a dramatic reading online.

Andrey Kureichik, a celebrated playwright from Belarus, began writing “Insulted: Belarus(sia)” immediately after the national election on Aug. 6 that allowed Alexander Lukashenko to remain president, but which many say was tainted and unfair.

Three weeks later, as his country saw massive civil unrest that brought hundreds of thousands of protesters into the streets, Kureichik finished his play and handed it to John Freedman, an American writer based in Russia, to translate it. Thirty-six hours later Freedman was offering his English translation to anyone who was interested.

More than 40 theater companies jumped at the chance.

“One reason for that is the play is really good,” said Yury Urnov, co-artistic director of the Wilma. “Very often documentary pieces are so urgent and written so quickly in response to the moment, [but] lack dramaturgical quality. This one doesn’t. Which is surprising and beautiful.”

Urnov says the play is a mixture of real characters speaking their actual words – including Lukashenko and his challenger Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya – and composite characters representing protesters, voters, police and otherwise average citizens of Belarus.

“The differences between them is really the point,” said Urnov. “Each of them is representing a different strata of society, and it shows how they are intertwined.”

Through short monologues, the characters reveal a Belarusian populace caught between historic ties to Russia and a progressive view toward Europe. It does not feature a resolution to the unrest in Belarus, because it is ongoing: this week Lukashenko secretly had himself inaugurated as president while many citizens, outside observers, and leaders of other countries still refuse to accept the results of the August election.

The immediacy of the play is one of the reasons Urnov wanted to stage it quickly, even as a sparsely produced reading.

“It looks like the situation there is at a turning point moment. It’s getting close to either/or. Everyone is afraid it might get violent,” he said.

On Saturday the play will be performed live online, by actors in their respective homes, to be streamed for free (although the Wilma requests a donation). It has already been performed by theater companies in Boston and Los Angeles, and is quickly spreading to other cities.

The Wilma’s website warns the play contains strong language and graphic descriptions of “violent protests, torture, and violence against women.” It adds: “While set in another country and culture, the events in the play closely parallel events experienced here in the United States.”

“The two main issues in the play are, the stolen political election and Russian influence. I wonder if that sounds familiar to the American ear,” said Urnov. “I think it does.”

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