A night with Tom Stoppard and the Belarus Free Theatre
Tom Stoppard at Le Poisson Rouge Wednesday night.(Photo by the author)
One wants to live in history, but one does not want to be a disaster tourist—especially when the disaster can be witnessed a mile away from your house. Wednesday night, at Le Poisson Rouge in Greenwich Village, at a benefit for The Belarus Free Theatre, Natalia Koliada, the group’s co-founder, reported at the outset that, earlier in the day, one of the actresses—a woman backstage, preparing to perform for the 200 or so patrons in the club’s darkly lit basement space on Bleecker Street—had received a one-word text message from her husband, back in Minsk: “Arrest.” Yesterday was the one-month anniversary of a violent crackdown following a fraudulent election in Europe’s last true dictatorship, and her husband, protesting, was taken into custody by President Alexander Lukashenko’s secret police, which—in a symbol of the regime’s brutality, heritage, and almost self-parodic oppressiveness—is still called the KGB. “I didn’t plan to tell you some bad news,” said Koliada. She was dressed in a denim jacket and a hoodie with fashionable short hair—someone whom you would assume was just another neighborhood resident if you saw her walking down East Seventh Street one afternoon. She had hoped for a “cheerful” evening, but unfortunately, History had taken place. I immediately realized that It had, and that this was therefore a rare and valuable experience for me, one that, in a paradoxical but unembarassing way, I would cherish. Then again, it dawned on me that my rare experience was another man’s prison sentence.
The lump in my throat only grew once I felt yet less estranged from the repression in Belarus—and not only because of the (not untrue) insistence, made by the PEN major domo, that the squashing of a writer in one place means the squashing of all writers in all places. After the troupe produced an excerpt from a play, Numbers, two screens flashed the names of various famous personages of Belarusian origin. Many of these—and nearly all the famous names—were Jews, including Kirk Douglas (whose son Michael had written a letter of solidarity that was read at the event); Chaim Weizmann; Shimon Peres; Isaac Asimov; Larry King; Irving Berlin; Ralph Lauren; and Marc Chagall. So it would be especially silly for me to think of these people as fundamentally different than myself. We would be bonded enough if we merely shared our humanity, but this extra connection brought our kinship home for me. (more…)