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At this time last month, actor Leigh Jameson had never heard of Belarus Free Theater. But when Jameson, who has performed at Rep Stage and the Shakespeare and Studio Theatres, heard the news of the Dec. 19 crackdown wherein Belarussians protesting what are almost universally regarded as fraudulent election returns securing a third term for President Aleksandr Lushenko were beaten and jailed by the thousands, she got involved in a hurry. Among those rounded up were two members of the dissident theater troupe that since 2005 has performed political plays in secret, defying the Lushenko’s regime’s censorship.
Belarus may be “former” Soviet republic, but in freedom-of-speech terms, little has changed since the USSR’s collapse in 1991. The KGB still intimidates and imprisons critics of the government. It’s even still called the KGB.
“It upset me as a professional actor to think that my extended family were not permitted to do the same work I do simply because the government says it’s too dangerous,” Jameson says. “I was filling out all the little online petitions, but it felt hollow. “
One of the news stories Jameson read quoted American playwright Aaron Landsman, who has collaborated with Belarus Free Theater for years. Jameson wrote to Landsman to ask how she could help the cause. The outcome is tonight’s reading at Theater J of Being Harold Pinter, directed by Jameson and featuring actors Ian Armstrong, Will Gartshore, and Eric Messner, among others. The play is a compilation of excerpts of Pinter’s 2005 Nobel lecture, edited together with pieces of his plays and letters from political prisoners in Belarus. All involved are donating their time, and Theater J has donated the use of its space and production staff. “No one I’ve asked who didn’t have a conflict has said no,” Jameson says. Members of Belarus Free Theater are now in New York City performing Being Harold Pinter as part of The Public Theater’s Under the Radar Festival that closes tonight. Artists around the U.S. are staging readings of the play in solidarity. (Baltimore’s Single Carrot theater is staging its own reading of Being Harold Pinter this evening, though Jameson says the Theater J reading will be the largest.)
Husband and wife Nikolai Khalezin and Natalia Kolyada founded Belarus Free Theater after Khalezin’s various employers — first an art gallery, then three newspapers — were shut down by the government. Kolyada had already made herself a target because of her campaigns to dispose of leftover Soviet nukes and other weapons. Jameson says Khalezin has learned he and his wife are on a KGB watch list, and will be arrested upon arrival if they return to their homeland. Though the couple remain in New York tonight for a Public Theater benefit, Kolyada will appear to the Theater J audience via a videotaped message. Beginning tomorrow morning, she’ll be in DC for a series of meetings and speaking engagements to discuss the eroding prospects for free speech and human rights in Belarus.
Being Harold Pinter will be read tonight at Theater J at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are free and currently all reserved; however, all unclaimed tickets will be released at 7:20 an distributed on a first-come, first-served basis.