British producer David Cecil served four days in a Ugandan jail because he produced a play about a gay man. Adel Imam, an Egyptian comic actor, was sentence to three months in jail (though the sentence was later reduced to a fine of $170) for offending Islam in the roles he had played. Human rights activists Natalia Kaliada and her husband Nikolai Khalezin, co-artistic directors of the Belarus Free Theatre, have been living as political refugees in London since May 2011.
Across the globe in recent seasons, these and other theatre artists have been menaced, fined, jailed and forced to live in exile for the views voiced in their plays, the characters they portray, or simply because they’ve created theatre.
In some Islamic countries, for example, performance and the self-display that it entails are viewed with repulsion, even if the content of the play is politically in sync with the dominant culture. It is indeed ironic that artists who were at the forefront of the Arab Spring uprisings may now find themselves clamped down upon in new ways.
Perhaps no theatre artist is more controversial today than Palestinian Zakaria Zubeidi, who heads the Freedom Theatre in the Jenin refugee camp in the West Bank. In varying degrees, the theatre is a thorn in the side of the Israeli government, the Palestinian Authority and the Muslim culture at large.
This past May Zubeidi was taken into custody by the Palestinian Authority. Initially he was not charged with any crime, but eventually he was accused of taking part in a shootout at the home of Jenin’s governor, Qaddura Musa, who later died of a heart attack. The gun that was used in the attack was found in Zubeidi’s house, though he maintains the weapon was planted. The international theatre community rallied on Zubeidi’s behalf, and in October he was released on bail following a hunger strike. Bloodshed is not foreign to the Freedom Theatre. Its former co-director and founder Juliano Mer-Khamis, a Palestinian Jew, was assassinated in April 2011 and the murder remains unsolved (see “Creation Under Occupation,” Feb. ’12).
“The Freedom Theatre and my involvement with it is the main reason why I was arrested,” Zubeidi writes in an e-mail, with the help of an interpreter. “I have no doubt about that. We don’t belong to any political or religious affiliation, and that’s why they feel threatened by us. We have Jews, Muslims and Christians in the theatre as well as atheists. We are not associated with any political party. We are with everyone who is with the liberation of the Palestinian people. Freedom is the only ideology to which we belong, and this makes the people who are against freedom very uncomfortable.”
The Middle East is a notable hot spot, but so are Southeast Asia, Africa, China and Eastern Europe. Nobody knows precisely how many theatre artists have served jail time or been forced out of their countries because of their art—or, indeed, whether they’re in greater danger today than in the past. Are we just hearing more about them, thanks to technology?
Whatever the answer, an awareness of the problem and the need to address it is growing within the global theatre community.
Consider this: The 64-year-old International Theatre Institute, whose central mission is global citizenship, has launched an ITI Action Committee for Artists Rights. Similarly, Theatre Without Borders, a collective of volunteers whose mandate also champions freedom of expression across the globe, has recently formed Artists and Human Rights, an initiative designed specifically to handle the growing crisis in a systematic and timely way. Additionally, TWB is partnering with freeDimensional, a non-governmental organization that serves the needs of visual artists around the world.
Regardless of their respective genres, artists share common ground, though theatre artists may have a harder time than, say, painters, simply because “they have higher visibility and more interaction with the public,” asserts Sidd Joag, director of freeDimensional. “A lot depends on the context and the channels through which a work is disseminated. A painting can be controversial, but if it’s seen only by a limited number of people, there won’t be a notable response. A play, on the other hand, even one that might not be especially controversial, may cause a problem because it brings groups of people together—and some governments don’t like gatherings. Burma, for example, is very suspicious of any gathering.”
Of course, the issue becomes compounded if the artist is high-profile and has a large following, Joag points out.
TWB and freeDimensional are now in the process of creating a rapid-response mechanism “that will be like a danger button on the TWB website,” explains Jessica Litwak, a playwright, actor and drama therapist who works with the organization. “It will immediately take you to an intake form which will be in English, French and Spanish, and through a series of processes that we’re setting up, we’re hopeful we can access resources—legal, medical, immigration, for example—and get back to the person who contacted us almost immediately. But that depends on funding. At the moment, we’re contributing our own money and hoping we’ll be able to get some grants.”
Watchdogs like TWB face no shortage of challenges, not least the vast geographical distances between themselves and the artists in peril—“and the fact that the sharing of cyber information happens so quickly, while true and accurate communications across languages and culture can be a slower and more sensitive process,” Litwak admits. “It is very important to gather accurate information. There was a recent case when family members specifically asked that the arrest of an artist not be publicized as it might have lethal consequences, thanks to the government in the country where he was being held.”
Misunderstandings come in all shapes and sizes. David Cecil, for example, insists that his experience in Uganda bears no resemblance to what outsiders may choose to believe. He has worked in Uganda for five years—indeed, is attached to a Ugandan woman with whom he has children—and has experienced no repression of expression up until this point.
“Uganda is a country of bountiful possibilities,” he emphasizes. “You can do anything here. You can start a business, make a film, or produce a play in a fraction of the time, at a fraction of the cost compared to England. There is popular misconception that Uganda is an illiberal place. I feel far freer here than I ever did in the U.K.”
Still, he anticipated that his play The River and the Mountain would generate a measure of controversy, because it dealt with homosexuality. Indeed, he had received a warning from the government’s Media Council. But he never expected to spend four days in jail, he concedes, adding that his detention was a bail-issue technicality, “for reasons that remain unclear.” He adds, “I don’t want to be deported. I will, if allowed to stay, continue to make provocative movies and drama—but I’ll try and clear it with the Media Council well in advance.”
Despite the fact that the Ugandan authorities have seized Cecil’s passport, he maintains, “International campaigners should come and spend time researching here before drawing conclusions. Uganda is a great country with a long and complex social history that should be appreciated and not vilified. Unfortunately this complexity does not sell papers or raise funds for NGOs!”
The play’s Ugandan director, Angella Emurwon, who admits that censorship is common in the country—she cites the banning of The Vagina Monologues as a case in point—notes that “a white face often makes the news. Depending on the issue, the resulting media frenzy can be harmless, but in some cases the danger of a foreigner in the limelight is that the real issue can get lost, or, even worse, completely rejected as a foreign matter being acted out in our backyard.”
Turkish playwright Özen Yula is also concerned with the short-sightedness of the international theatre and press community. Yula was not jailed, but he was accused of blasphemy for his political satire Lick but Don’t Swallow! He faced myriad threats from unknown sources and ultimately found himself and his cast locked out of their theatre. Yula believes American and European editors don’t want to focus on censored artists because they don’t feel these artists deserve interest and fame. “The editors don’t really care about the essence of censorship,” he asserts.
No one disputes that some cases are more urgent—and perhaps, for various reasons, more popular—than others. Zubeidi is a perfect example, with his much-publicized list of supporters that includes Vanessa Redgrave, Alice Walker, the Public Theater of New York’s Oskar Eustis, and New York Theatre Workshop’s Jim Nicola. Zubeidi admits the international arts community believed in his innocence “even when people here in Jenin refugee camp started to have doubts.”
As for the exiled Belarus Free Theatre, co-artistic leader Kaliada says, “It’s impossible to produce the work you want to produce in Belarus. We couldn’t do plays by Sarah Kane, because they deal with suicide, drug abuse and mental illness. The authorities don’t accept the idea that these problems exist in Belarus and believe audiences will be influenced by what they see. Then we tried to do a Russian play about young men dying in a hospice, and we were not allowed to do that one either because the young men talk about freedom.”
Kaliada is profoundly grateful for the help BFT has gotten from the U.S., the United Kingdom and, more recently, the Netherlands. It should be noted that in December 2010, thanks to the efforts of Eustis and Under the Radar Festival’s artistic director Mark Russell, the company was smuggled out of the country, one member at a time. Once in Russia, they were flown to New York, where they performed and finally had the chance to meet with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Nevertheless, Kaliada worries about what will happen as the drama of BFT’s flight fades from the limelight. For those who still want to help the theatre, she asserts that the first order of business is employment, because without it the company will not survive. It’s equally important for interested parties to make sure that those in power continue to pay attention to the theatre’s plight as a stepping stone to taking action—“not based on realpolitik but morality and politics,” Kaliada specifies.
For their part, Litwak and Joag know they have their work cut out for them—from not forgetting the less-trendy causes, to raising consciousness and funds, to establishing on-the-ground contacts all over the world. Above all else, they must avoid superimposing their Western views on other cultures, asserts Joag.
Even in the most repressive regimes, the goal should be to help the artist remain at home with the help of like-minded people in his own society, Joag emphasizes. “Relocating a Cambodian who doesn’t speak Norwegian to Oslo isn’t the best way to go.”
Simi Horwitz is a theatre reporter who was on staff with Back Stage and Theater Week, and has contributed to Crain’s New York Business and the Jewish Daily Forward.