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Theater group performs amid Belarus suppression of free speech and expression

By Carrie Snurr

The Belarus Free Theater operates under the threat of arrest in their country and is forced to hold performances in secret in the country of Belarus. They have held performances in small apartments, bars and cafes.

Its audiences can be fined and arrested for attending performances the group holds. Many of their members have been arrested and jailed in the past. They are unsanctioned by the government and most of their members have been arrested or jailed in the past.

On Oct. 26 and 27, the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center at the University of Maryland will be featuring the group’s performance, “Burning Doors,” which draws on experiences of political oppression the theater group has faced from its government.

 Belarus Free Theater Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center
The Belarus Free Theater often performs underground due to Belarus suppression of free speech and expression. The group's performances take inspiration from real-life stories of the actors and people around the world. (Photo: Nicolai Khalezin/The Clarice)

The group also operates from London because of threats it faces from the Belarus government. The leader of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, is considered “Europe’s last dictator,” according the the Washington Post, and has been in power since 1994. Protests and free speech are tightly controlled and regulated.

Its “Burning Doors” performance features Maria Alyokhina, with the Russian anti-Putin punk-rock group Pussy Riot, in her first stage performance.

In March 2012, in protest of Putin’s re-election, Alyokhina and three other members of Pussy Riot climbed the altar of Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour and sang songs laced with profanity and anti-Putin sentiments. They were arrested and Alyokhina and her fellow protesters were charged with disorderly conduct and hooliganry.

Martin Wollesen, executive director for The Clarice, said he’d been aware of the theater group’s work for several years because of the kind of work they do. He saw the “Burning Doors” production in London a year ago and decided to bring the performance to The Clarice.

The Free Theater group considers it performances to be a form of investigative journalism. They take the stories and experiences from people across the world, including their own, and translate that into their work.

In March, five members of the group were arrested in Belarus for participating in a protest against the so-called “tax of parasites,” which would have placed a tax on unemployed people in Belarus. The group’s leading actor was arrested and the group had to alter the shows it was performing but continued to perform.

 Belarus Free Theater Free Speech Burning Doors Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center Pussy Riot
The group is made up of mostly refugees and most of the actors have been arrested and jailed for protesting or performing. In March, five members of the Belarus Free Theater were arrested for participating in protests of the so-called "tax of parsites" in Belarus. (Photo: Alex Brenner/The Clarice) 

The “Burning Doors” performance focuses on the experiences of three dissidents, Wollesen said. It follows the ways those dissidents do their work.

“It’s important for us as a society and community to be able to bring these artists that allow us to examine issues of free speech and expression,” he said. “[Audiences] will see work they do not see typically. It’s very forward and there’s this sense of endurance that the mind and body have to go through. It demands the audience pay attention.”

“Burning Doors” focuses on freedom of speech and expression, a topic that has recently been at the center of debate.

“Anyone who cares about free speech and the importance of our ability to protest should pay attention to this group,” Wollesen said. “It’s an opportunity to be part of that. It allows the audience to be connected to repression in other parts of the world.”

President Donald Trump in September criticized the NFL for allowing players such as Colin Kaepernick to kneel during the national anthem in protest against police shootings of black men. Trump said players who kneel showed disrespect for the flag and for American soldiers.

In early october, Vice President Mike Pence walked out of an Indianapolis Colts game on Trump’s orders in what was widely deemed a staged protest after players for the San Francisco 49ers knelt during the national anthem.

The Belarus Free Theater is largely run by refugees and in addition to its performances, has been an active protester for rights of free speech and expression in Belarus. They are an advocacy group that focuses on social justice and human rights violations around the world.


Carrie Snurr is an editorial intern for The Washington Diplomat.




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