Ukraine, Eurasian Theater’s New Leader
BY BLAIR A. RUBLE
“Why is Putin bombing us?” a frightened child asks a traumatized mother. How can anyone answer? Natasha Block’s new play Our Children brings the unanswerable grotesque uncertainties of war directly into our souls.
The ghastly war in Ukraine is nurturing an exciting theater that holds promise for world theater. As reported here previously, some of the world’s leading theater artists rallied as the first bombs were falling on Ukraine to launch an international initiative to bear witness to Putin’s horrors. Starting with the Worldwide Ukrainian Play Readings Project, Maksym Kurochkin of Kyiv’s Theater of Playwrights, Philip Arnoult of Baltimore’s Center for International Theater Development, Noah Birksted-Breen of London’s Sputnik Theatre, John Freedman, and others have commissioned Ukraine’s playwrights to create scripts in response to the war.
Kurochkin personifies the transfer of creative energy to Ukraine. A Russian-speaking native of Kyiv, he became one of the New Russian Drama movement’s brightest stars. Kurochkin worked in Moscow, in the post-Soviet theatrical hotbed of Yekaterinburg, and in the Russian film industry. More than half a dozen years ago Kurochkin returned to his hometown where he joined forces with two dozen playwrights to establish the Theater of Playwrights with the goal of nurturing a rising generation of Ukrainian theater artists. Recently he has switched to writing his own plays in Ukrainian.
By the end of April, the Worldwide Ukrainian Play Readings Project had commissioned more than one hundred new scripts, many translated into English and other languages and all available online. Well over one hundred project-sponsored readings had taken place in some twenty countries. The proceeds are used to support Ukraine-based organizations.
On May 5, I had the privilege of participating in one such virtual reading in Washington, D.C. Though Washington remains first and foremost a political city, the American capital has developed a vibrant theater community over the past three quarters of a century. Boycotted in an earlier era by the nation’s leading theater artists in response to the city’s noxious Jim Crow segregation, by the mid-twentieth century Washington was a city bereft of professional theater. A theater community befitting a major national capital took root once Jim Crow customs became illegal.
Today the city is home to dozens theater companies and the second largest theater audience in the United States. Its theater world has become an incubator for all variety of artists and productions that have found success in New York, Hollywood, and major dramatic centers around the world.
Washington’s Voices Festival Productions collaborated with the Washington Arts Club, long housed at the historic James Monroe House on Pennsylvania Avenue, diagonally across the street from the World Bank, to host a virtual reading for this expansive theater community. The evening featured three of the plays supported by the Worldwide Ukrainian Play Readings Project: Yelena Astasyeva’s A Dictionary of Emotions in War Time, Natasha Blok’s Our Children, and Adriy Bondarenko’s Peace and Tranquility. A. Lorraine Robinson directed each, which featured actors Hanna Bondarewska, Aakhu Freeman, and Lisa Hodsoll.
The plays captured the shock and horror of the war’s first days. Astasyeva used her experience to give new meaning to such emotions as “panic,” “fear,” ‘hunger,” “betrayal,” love,’ ‘hatred,” and guilt.” Blok tried to answer questions posed by children, such as “Why are they killing us?” Bondarenko pondered what happened to all those rights he thought he had while growing up. Interspersed community commentary set off the plays from each another. A panel discussion followed.
The shock of uncertainty unleashed by war binds together these works of rather different style and temperament. Far too much remains unknowable to answer the existential questions posed by the performances. Combined, they proclaim that which we already know, namely, that an energetic Ukraine and Ukrainian culture will continue well into the future.
Ukrainians have awed the world with their passion, resilience, creativity, and commitment to a better country. Their land and culture profoundly matter to them. Ukraine no longer stands in anyone’s shadow. As the arts are revealing, Ukrainians themselves have built—and continue to build—a distinctive culture and society for themselves.
Endings in the arts often accompany beginnings. Early in April, Philadelphia’s Wilma Theater presented Russian director Dmitry Krymov’s take on Anton Chekhov’s iconic The Cherry Orchard. The production was unlike any other among the thousands of productions of the play over the past century. Krymov has been one of Moscow theater’s leading lights during the remarkable era of the New Russian Drama movement, which took advantage of the new freedoms of the Soviet collapse to create one of the Russian theater’s most creative periods. Such inventiveness, unfortunately, wilted before the combined onslaught of Vladimir Putin’s brutish authoritarianism and the Russian Orthodox Church’s spirit-crushing campaign for “patriotic” moralism. Putin declared Krymov a traitor just days before the Philadelphia opening.
Fittingly, The Cherry Orchard is about curtains coming down on societies and their cultures overwhelmed by economic, social, and political change. An entrepreneurial peasant who has risen to wealth stealthily buys an estate out from under its aging aristocratic landlords and chops down their prized cherry orchard to build a compound of summer cottages for sale. Krymov, in one of several nods to the horror unfolding in contemporary Ukraine, uses a magical train departure board to announce that the Muscovite landowners have arrived in Kharkiv, thus setting the action in a region under attack. The play ends not to the sound of axes chopping down trees, as in Chekhov’s original, but to bombs falling on a not too distant city. Once again, Chekhov’s last masterpiece prompts contemplation of finales.
In Krymov’s case, plans are afoot to establish a new studio in New York. Artists fleeing predatory authoritarians are enriching American performing arts yet again. America’s gain is Russia’s loss, even if few in the Kremlin seem to care.
For the past three decades, Ukrainian artists working in many genres—literature, theater, dance, music, the visual arts—have drawn energy from the freedom, chaos, and contradictions of their country’s independence. In the process they have created a mature artistic community that has overcome the Soviet Union’s de-Ukrainization cultural polices of the 1960s through the 1980s (and far worse before). They have done so largely out of the view of an international arts community mesmerized by the legendary glitter of European and Russian cultures.
The Ukrainian cultural moment arrived as Putin’s authoritarian regime lowered the curtain on Russia’s art scene and raised it on a culture that Ukrainians have been creating for themselves for the past several decades. In all the horror and terror of war, a previously undiscovered artistic domain full of innovation, energy, and beauty has come into view. The world should be thankful that Eurasia theater’s new leader will be ignored no longer.
The opinions expressed in this article are those solely of the authors and do not reflect the views of the Kennan Institute.
About the Author
Blair A. Ruble
Former Wilson Center Vice President for Programs (2014-2017); Director of the Comparative Urban Studies Program/Urban Sustainability Laboratory (1992-2017); Director of the Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies (1989-2012) and Director of the Program on Global Sustainability and Resilience (2012-2014)
The Kennan Institute is the premier U.S. center for advanced research on Russia and Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange. Read more