Late one night, after having just finished a long tech, we were thanking the local techies with a few beers. We were two Americans and two native Uzbek men—one with wild dreads, pulled back tight; and another whom they called Romeo, after his attempt to climb his girlfriend’s apartment building left him punctured on a fence post. The four of us spoke through an exchange of broken Russian and English. Running the bases on the usual topics—women, our introduction to theatre, Russian curse words—we stumbled onto the topic of Uzbeki politics.
“Did you hear the explosion on your first day here?” I hadn’t. “They said it was something like a gas vein, but that’s just what they say.” My ears perked up. “It’s all right, though. They are very tough on terrorists here,” the Uzbek techie assured me. I couldn’t help but wonder: Who are these terrorists they are so rough on?
After the disintegration of the Soviet Union, I learned, the country of Uzbekistan reemerged in 1991, and Islam Karimov—a former Soviet cabinet member—was established as its first (and so far only) president. In the early 2000s, reports began to surface about horrific human-rights violations, including instances of murder, rape by the police, censorship—even cases of political prisoners being boiled alive.
Karimov is noted for his “anti-terrorist” stance, especially against those he considers Islamic jihadists, and he has been strong U.S. ally, even offering his country as a military base for operations in Afghanistan. But in 2005, during what became known as the Andijan Massacre, hundreds of protestors were driven into a closed street and shot by Uzbek police and snipers. As many as 1,500 dead were dumped into mass graves. The U.S. government could no longer ignore Karimov’s human-rights record, and accordingly removed troops from the country.
As you might imagine, our preparations to travel to this region were extensive. We were coached by the U.S. Embassy on areas of concern: how to dress, looking strangers in the eye, and generally flaunting our American presence. We were told to expect every hotel room to be tapped, and to delete everything from our phones when we got home. Several of the members of the Seagull Project are openly gay, which is illegal in Uzbekistan. The idea that we were being watched constantly was troubling, and the fact that we were being told to wash ourselves clean of this environment afterward brought a sense of danger along with our sense of American privilege.
Armed with these warnings, we spent most of our time in the theatre Weil built, working, rehearsing, talking with the Ilkhom company over cups of tea from their café, or over vodka. People from all walks of life and nationalities were brought together by the festival and by the unique environment fostered at the theatre.
For the Ilkhom is not just a platform for daring and dangerous work, but a community for creativity. We were part of that vibrant community for 16 days, sharing our lives and desires. We collected little stories, like one about the woman who would drop a basket of cigarettes from her window if you gave her a few hundred som (about 80 American cents), and big stories, like how there may be gay members of the Ilkhom company, but there was no outlet in the conservative closet to test out the light. I felt these stories, big and small, wrapping around my heart, and knew it would be impossible to erase them, like text messages or photos from my phone.
Once a museum, then a restaurant, before it was burnt down to its shell, the top floor of the Ilkhom is an expansive, hollowed-out room, which has since grown new adornments on its singed walls. Paintings and art installations cover the space. Two weeks into the festival, and just days before the opening of our Seagull, I stood in the middle of this room as huge flashing lights and loud music pulsed in front of me and hundreds of people in hippie garb filtered past. People from all around the city of Tashkent had come to witness perhaps the most blatantly American portion of our festival: a concert of American music of the ’70s. Jefferson Airplane and Janis Joplin filled the air as people jumped and danced. They had dressed in American-style clothes not only to engage in the evening’s spirit, but to enter a contest for the evening’s grand-prize gag gift: a can of American air.
The Ilkhom company then presented their interpretations of America to us, performing Albee, Steinbeck and scenes from some new American plays—Archipelago by Caridad Svich and Worse than Tigers by Mark Chrisler. In return, we offered the Russian treasure The Seagull, in addition to Dance on Bones with our quartet of Uzbek musicians.
Watching their original musical version of Steinbeck’s Tortilla Flat, performed in Russian without English subtitles, was an out-of-body experience; “Amigos!” and other bits of American Southwest vernacular rang out like a bell. On the other hand, our American Chekhov may have seemed most peculiar to them, with its anglicized variations on Russian folk songs and traditions. We offered to our generous Tashkent hosts our interpretation of the “great soul of Russia.” This was exactly the creative dialogue and cultural exchange the Seagull Project had been dreaming of.
I thought back to a late night on the floor of an apartment on the outskirts of Tashkent, where I sat and argued with a Russian woman about the merits of performing Chekhov in English. Right away it was obvious this would be a hard fight to win.
“Why would you ever want to do that?” the woman wanted to know.
“Why? Well, we feel that he is the finest purveyor of the human soul, so by tapping into the characters on a deep enough level, we can still bring out the heart of his work.”
“Chekhov is the heart of Russia. He speaks the language of the Russian people. What can Americans hope to do with him?”
“We want to show that his work speaks to universal truths about humanity: our obsessions, our hopes, and our faults. To find Chekhov’s brushstroke—”
“No. I have no need to see that.”
She came to the show. I found her in the midst of our closing night celebration, mere hours before we were to board a plane back home, and asked her what she thought. At first she maintained her cool demeanor, choosing her words slowly and carefully. But soon a reluctant smile crept across her face. “I loved Masha,” she said without a translator, “and, you all, you…” she grasped at the air for the words. “You have the soul.” She quickly extinguished her betraying smile, but a glint of acknowledgment moved through her eyes. The words of Chekhov she knew so well may have been exchanged for a new soundscape, but the play and passion burned strong.
A melding of artistic communities had transcended language and cultural barriers, because we were all working toward the same goal: the expression of some truthful essence of human existence. After nearly three weeks working at the Ilkhom, our company had built a new kind of language with the community. The place felt like home.
Our time in Uzbekistan thrust us into another culture and forged a relationship built on discovery. When the final night came, our Seagull was met with wild approval. A word-for-word understanding may not have been reached, but we sensed a deep empathy around human need, acceptance, and love.
We at the Seagull Project may live in Seattle, but this trip marks the beginning of our nomadic lives. Each place we land is where we find our new friends, our new experiences, and our temporary homes.
I learned that Ilkhom, appropriately enough, is Uzbek for “inspiration.” The walls at the Ilkhom Theatre bleed and sweat the history of its people, their confinement, anger and bliss. Those walls hold countless stories—stories of the years when the theatre was forced into silence by government restrictions, when they brilliantly resorted to silent clown performances, stories of the day after Mark Weil’s death, when the show went on with their leader gone.
I left my own story on that wall. Mentors and leaders die, and we must lunge into the future fearlessly, with the deep appreciation of that which came before—and the energy to fuel what has yet to come.
Gavin Reub is a director, producer, dramaturg and writer, and the co-artistic of the Seagull Project.
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