Post-performance talkbacks are quite common, but very seldom do they feature a writer who is forced to speak to the audience from hiding.
Those were the unusual circumstances Monday night after an online reading of “Insulted. Belarus(sia),” a wrenching new drama by dissident Belarusian playwright Andrei Kureichik that is quite literally ripped from the headlines. Heard but not seen on a Zoom link, Kureichik spoke about the circumstances that gave rise to his play after a cast of seven delivered passionate performances under the auspices of Needham’s Arlekin Players Theatre.
The author of more than two dozen plays as well as a screenwriter and film director, Kureichik fled Belarus to avoid arrest. He has been active in the opposition to autocratic Belarus president Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, who has been called “Europe’s last dictator.” Last month Lukashenko maintained his 26-year hold on power in Belarus with a landslide victory in an election that was widely denounced as riddled with fraud, including by the State Department, which said it “was not free and fair.”
The disputed election kicked off massive nationwide demonstrations. Protesters were met with tear gas and rubber bullets by riot police and security forces; more than 10,000 have been arrested overall; UN human rights experts reported 450 documented cases of torture.
Amid the turmoil, playwright Kureichik set to work, seeking to capture history as it was happening, trying to put into theatrical form the tumultuous events erupting all around him.
Kureichik said Monday that he conducted interviews with “people who told their stories about how they were beaten, captured, put into jail.” He began working on “Insulted. Belarus(sia)” on Aug. 21, basing some characters on real-life figures, including Lukashenko, an opposition candidate, and an election monitor. Writing at a furious pace, and drawing roughly 50 percent of the play’s monologues and dialogue from words spoken by the real-life figures, Kureichik finished the play on Sept. 12.
“All the heroes of the play are real,” he said, adding that he incorporated the “real words of real people who suffered in the streets.”
Shortly after completing “Insulted. Belarus(sia),” he fled Belarus. Kureichik is a member of the opposition Coordination Council. According to the playwright, seven of the Council’s 40 members have been imprisoned. “I cannot come back because I will be arrested in a moment,” he said.
With a presidential election in the United States just weeks away, Kureichik drew parallels between Lukashenko and President Trump, who has voiced admiration for authoritarian leaders. “To me, Mr. Lukashenko is Donald Trump in power for 26 years,” said Kureichik. “I think psychologically they’re quite close together.” Of Lukashenko, Kureichik said: “He hates everybody who tries to take his power.”
The dictator draws the bulk of his support from the older generation in Belarus, according to the playwright. “But the younger generation, they want to build something new,” he said.
The virtual reading of “Insulted. Belarus(sia)” was produced by Arlekin and copresented by Arlekin and New York-based Cherry Orchard Festival. Arlekin is the first of more than 20 theater companies in five countries that will be producing “Insulted. Belarus(sia).” Monday’s event came together with remarkable speed, and it constituted another milestone for Arlekin Players Theatre, which recently drew national attention with a Zoom production of “State vs. Natasha Banina.”
Two weeks ago, translator John Freedman sent an urgent note to Arlekin artistic director Igor Golyak that began: "Igor! Hello! Let me get right to the point. The renowned Belarusian playwright Andrei Kureichik finished a play today about what is happening now. As he said, ‘I needed to finish things up before I get arrested.’ "
Golyak quickly arranged a virtual reading of the play in Russian (it occurred Sept. 17, directed by him) and Monday night’s English-language version. After only two rehearsals, a wholly committed cast performed the 75-minute play, directed by Blair Cadden, an MFA student at Boston University. In a telephone interview Tuesday, Golyak said “Insulted. Belarus(sia)” will be part of Arlekin’s upcoming season, with dates to be announced.
Kureichik lavished the Monday night cast of “Insulted. Belarus(sia)” with praise, employing the adjective “fantastic” several times. The cast included Nael Nacer as Lukashenko; Raul Avila as his son; Marianna Bassham as Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, Lukashenko’s main opponent, a former English teacher who took her jailed husband’s place and ran for president, and whom some, citing exit polls, believe was the real winner of the Aug. 9 election; Anne Gottlieb as a teacher four years away from receiving her pension who agrees to aid in vote fraud; Eliott Purcell as a “hired state thug” who brutalizes protesters; Anna Bortnick as a guileless, gentle-spirited election observer who fervently believes that change is possible; and Jordan Pearson as a soccer fan and protester who is under no illusions about how difficult it will be to achieve that change.
Over the course of “Insulted. Belarus(sia),” their lives intersect and collide, sometimes tragically, as the nation is convulsed in a fight for freedom.
Speaking of the man they’re fighting against, Lukashenko, Kureichik said that when writing his play, “I tried to understand him as well. I know his psychology. He thought people would love him forever. But it doesn’t work anymore.”
“Our revolution is not over,” Kureichik added. “We’re somewhere in the middle of it. I really believe that love will win. But it will be a lot of hate to our people from our powers, unfortunately.”
Kureichik offered a prediction and a promise. The prediction: “I believe we will win this revolution in the next two or three months.” The promise: “I hope to write another play on the finish of the dictator.”