Jersey City Theatre Center Voices International Festival                                                   

by Carol Di Tosti

How often do we have the opportunity to see works that are performed in countries around the world? One irony of the COVID-19 pandemic is that we have been forced to go online to witness virtual live or pre-recorded streaming performances on Zoom or YouTube. The benefit has been an introduction to global theatrical performances which help expand our own horizons, imagination and appreciation for artistic and cultural diversity.

In its fascinating Voices International Festival, combining offerings from live virtual and pre-recorded theater performances and films, the Jersey City Theatre Center’s 10 day festival is an amazing opportunity to become familiar with what is happening in theater outside the United States.

The offerings included three plays about race and equity from South Africa; politically controversial work from Israel, Russia and Tajikistan; unique productions from South Korea, Spain and France, and dance-performance from Czech Republic, India and the United States. Also represented from the protest-torn Belarus, the only dictatorship left in Europe, where Alone, a documentary film and Burning Doors, were both created by Belarus Free Theatre.

Alone is an intriguing account of one of Ukraine’s biggest popstars, Andrei Khluvniuk, the lead singer of the hip-hop rock band, Boombox. The documentary, which is shot in Cinéma vérité style, follows Andrei as he grapples with the Russian annexation of Crimea and understands how his music, artistic identity and empowerment can make a difference. As a Ukrainian Andrei has been uninformed like many young Ukrainians who are in denial about Russia’s persecution of Ukrainian artists, journalists and dissidents who Putin and the Kremlin view as enemies of the state if they protest or expose Russian aggression.

The film begins with Andrei in a voice-over introducing himself. He states that he is about to give the most important concert of his life. The irony is that he and his band are driving to an open field with few if any fans coming to hear them. However, the location is profound. They will be playing in a protest action close to the illegal separation line created by Russia during the 2014 annexation of Crimea.

Andrei who has millions of fans around the world risks losing the ones most dear to his heart, his Ukrainian supporters. When they discover he is standing with artists and political prisoners caged in Russian jails to protest against Russia’s infamous war in the east of Ukraine and its theft of Ukraine’s stolen territories, will they abandon him? Will the Kremlin throw him in jail like the tortured and imprisoned filmmaker Oleg Senstov and others?

How did Andrei have a change of heart to oppose the annexation of Crimea and the persecution of artists like Oleg Senstov, who goes on a hunger strike to bring attention to the plight of the imprisoned? The film follows Andrei’s process of awakening. We see how he meets with Belarus Free Theatre, the internationally-acclaimed theatre activists.

Through a series of events, for example, his visit to a cemetery where Red Army atrocities happened against Ukrainians and his participation in underground theater productions by Belarus Free Theatre, Andrei’s eyes are opened. He decides to use his fame and celebrity to inform Ukrainians and activate them toward the cause of freeing filmmaker Oleg Senstov and others who are rotting in Russian jails.

Andrei tours with Belarus Free Theatre as they perform Burning Doors in cities around the world to great acclaim. In the pre-recorded theatrical production of Burning Doors, we understand the vitality and power of Belarus Free Theatre and how their courageous and amazing work inspired Andrei to take the risk that he does.

Burning Doors, co-created by Belarus Free Theatre’s co-leaders Nikolai Khalezin and Natalia Koliada, with Pussy Riot’s Maria Alyokhina is an innovative, sardonic resistance piece. The cast is composed of activists who criticize through humor and irony Belarus’ dictatorship which has been propped up by the Kremlin for twenty-five years. Many of them like Maria Alyokhina have landed in prison, and segments of the production reveal the torture and abuse that the Kremlin uses to break the will of activists, artists and journalists.

All of the segments highlight how activist artists must withstand abuse and torture with a cold indifference as they harden themselves and become impassive to pain to effectively resist the Russian state. Oleg Senstov’s plight is examined. His comments under torture become the indelible orchestrations of a burgeoning protest movement to release Ukrainian prisoners in Kremlin jails.

The raw physicality of the various segments is intercut with static scenes of the vapid and materialistic bureaucrats who do the Kremlin’s bidding. The bureaucrats are perplexed by the artists’ will and courage. In Burning Doors they lack insight; they are functionaries, mere paper pushers who do Putin’s will without understanding the passion and sensitive, powerful souls of the artists they persecute.

In one particularly hilarious scene, two bureaucrats sit across from each other and do their business on toilets, as they discuss their confusion about a brilliant artist’s work. The absurdity of their stupidity and their inability to comprehend the artist’s subversive work is ironic and sublimely clever. The artist proves that he will not sell his soul but would rather die for his activist art that laughs at their bestial, unjust cruelty.

After viewing Burning Doors, one is in awe of the courage these actor-activists manifest for their theater which has the power to move mountains. Eventually as Belarus Free Theatre toured and ridiculed the Kremlin’s actions drawing embarrassing global attention to the unreasonable injustices, prisoners were released. The tour of Burning Doors which incorporated Andrei Khluvniuk’s song “Alone” and the film Alone which documented Andrei’s protest in the field near the Russian military separation line, sowed the seeds for Oleg Senstov’s release a few years later.

The JCTC Voices International Theatre Festival ends Sunday, 25 October. Don’t miss its sensational online viewing that will enlighten and entertain. Tickets ($10.00) and programming may be found at: