MANHATTAN (CN) – More than 300 protesters gathered across the street from the Belarus Mission to the United Nations on Wednesday, one month after the disputed re-election of Alexander Lukashenko, the dictator of the former Soviet satellite. Organized by The Public Theater and Amnesty International, the protesters chanted in support of Belarus’ dozens of political prisoners and The Belarus Free Theater, whose artists have been beaten and threatened with incarceration for staging plays that criticize political repression and social ills.
Cofounded by Natalia Koliada, The Belarus Free Theater recently staged two such plays, “Being Harold Pinter” and “Zone of Silence,” at two Off-Broadway mainstays: The Public Theater, founded by Joseph Papp, and La Mama, whose founder Ellen Stewart died this month.
Inspired by Pinter’s acerbic speech upon accepting the Nobel Prize for literature, “Being Harold Pinter” combines excerpts from his short plays and his blistering criticism of imperialism and state violence with the theater company’s selection of testimonies from political prisoners in Belarus.
In “Zone of Silence,” the troupe introduces audiences to Belarusian citizens, including a young girl who becomes a political pawn in an international custody battle, depicted in the play as a puppet made from newspapers.
The show ends with actors staging theatrical interpretations of statistics about contemporary life in Belarus: An actress pops a balloon on her belly to illustrate the country’s skyrocketing abortion rates; actors choreograph a morbid dance of workers injuring themselves in abysmal conditions; and the women sing folk songs of marital bliss as families crumble in a culture of sexism.
The actors rehearsed and performed both plays in secret in Belarus, and have performed both to acclaim in New York and London. The performances brought public attention to their country’s political strife.
“Why are we doing this today?” asked Oskar Eustis, artistic director of The Public Theater, answering, “It’s the one-month anniversary today of the disputed elections in Belarus. More than 50,000 people marched in protest. Thousands were beaten by the police and hundreds were arrested, including our friends at the Belarus Free Theater.”
The New York demonstrators gathered peacefully at of 67th Street and Lexington Avenue. Standing on a soapbox, Eustis told demonstrators that “many people are still being held in jail, including seven of the presidential candidates, journalists and activists.”
Along Eustis’s torso fell a black sash, which he also wore around his mouth to protest the repression of political prisoners in Belarus.
Hours before the protest, a text message delivered by the organizers promised, “THE SUN IS COMING OUT FOR US,” then the demonstrators gathered under an overcast sky and light rain.
Protesters included representatives of more than 30 theater companies across New York, theater luminaries such as playwright Tony Kushner and hundreds of activists outside of the artistic community, chanting in English and Belarusian, holding pictures of political prisoners and waving the country’s red-and-white flag.
“It’s thrilling that people from the theater community have joined in,” said Kushner, author of “Angels in America” and other politically charged plays. “It’s evidence that this incredible group of artists has given us … that art can speak to tyranny. Art can speak to injustice, and art can have an effect on the world. Art can make tyranny topple and [make] injustice turn to justice.”
Kushner addressed the crowd and read an excerpt from “Being Harold Pinter” of the testimony of a 70-year-old man beaten by the police: “I’ve been through the whole war, and wasn’t scared by the fascists, so you are nobody to me, just a complete nonentity.”
Stepping out of character, Kushner shifted from discussion of the arts to a more pointed discussion of Belarusian politics.
“I think this is a very exciting moment. The Lukashenko government is beginning to totter. There is a decline of support for this man and his monstrous policies in Russia, pressure on the Obama administration and on the U.N. and on Congress to insist that Russia stop supporting this man and to condemn what is going on in Belarus,” Kushner said.
Belarus Free Theatre co-founder Natalia Koliada told demonstrators to keep the pressure on.
“In Belarus we say that we don’t have gas. We don’t have oil. We don’t have mountains. We don’t have sea. We just have people. … People are not products. Politicians need to speak on behalf of people,” Kolaida said.
She said that citizens of Belarus can be thrown in prison for saying, “Long live Belarus” in their native language. Then she told the crowd how to translate the phrase and shout it to the embassy across the street.
“People in America, please appeal to your president to make a statement on Belarus. He kept silent. Ask him to make it. He needs to understand that it’s time to pay attention,” Kolaida said.
The Public Theater said in a statement that the organizers have enlisted support from Hillary Clinton and plan to deliver a petition to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights urging an investigation of human rights abuses in Belarus.