by Petre Florin Manole
I was born in a dead-end city, an economic and cultural wasteland (Slobozia, in Ialomița County). Back then, the highlight of the area was the festivities during the Days of the City: beer in a plastic cup and traditional music. As if that wasn’t enough, I later moved to the countryside – in Amara, Ialomița) – and moved up in the world: an annual music festival, with up and coming young “celebrities” and all the other artists for whom Bucharest was too small. That’s why, until I was 18, theater to me meant the radio theater show on Radio Romania, which I would skip every time I stumbled on it. Mom and dad paid just as much tax as the people in Bucharest, Iași, Timișoara, Constanța, Cluj or Ploiești, except there was no theater in my city, unlike in the above-mentioned ones. They even had one in Caracal…
But geographic discrimination is not my topic here, although it would be worth discussing. I simply meant to explain, in a couple of words, why a hillbilly like myself doesn’t have a clue about the theater, has never been in one, doesn’t care about it and doesn’t go to one when in Bucharest. For several years, “the theater” was that big building in University Square. Period.
When I was about 23, I went into a theater hall for the first time. It was at the National Theater. I had a girlfriend who was smarter than me and, as always, that weighs a great deal more than any posters of Florin Piersic. Besides, she was from Mizil, where they also had a theater, unlike in my native Slobozia. I can’t remember the play, it was a comedy, but the funniest scene happened when the curtain accidentally fell over the actors in the middle of the play. It was nice, I laughed and never returned.
So I took another break from the theater until 2011, when I Declare at My Own Risk was invented, a play with, by and about Alina Șerban (plus Alice Monica Marinescu and David Schwartz). A performance about what it was like to be a brave, determined, educated, young (unfortunately Roma) woman. I can’t remember how many times I’ve seen this play. Not because I didn’t get it the first time, nor because it was the only one out there, but because I saw, for the first time, ideas taking shape.
After spending ten years in the narrow world of Roma NGOs in the midst of wooden tongue approaches, of speeches and statistics, of lamentations, of dry, cold conflicts with those I perceived to be against us, after all this, I discovered that things could be expressed differently. Different from conference talks, different from opposing arguments, different from treating people as numbers.
I Declare… turned you into a softy, it revealed an actual person and an actual story which was both funny and serious, with a girl who didn’t turn herself into a victim and got her way eventually. I felt this performance was a little bit about me, as well. The message seemed so convincing and explicit that I brought tens, maybe hundreds, of friends to see the play, to see Alina Șerban and understand how I saw this part of the world without having to listen to my NGO stories.
I invited friends, journalists, co-workers, comrades, aunts, cousins, neighbors, members of Parliament. I learned, during the span of over a year, that all these people understood the message, no matter their background, their social status or their experiences. Maybe I’m using a silly cliché, but I find it captures my thoughts exactly: there is a language in which political theater manages to speak to all of us.
The plays about Roma people – this one by Alina Șerban, the one by Bogdan Georgescu (No Support), the one by Mihaela Drăgan (Del Duma – Tell Them about Me) – manage to deliver not just an ethnic message, but combine a series of other issues: education, poverty, class differences, feminism and a critique of conservatism.
These are the reasons why I increased my appetite for the theater and constantly went to see performances for over a year. Those plays spoke to me in a language I could understand about issues that were familiar to me, using perspectives I wouldn’t have considered. Other plays, other actors and other issues soon followed. Today I go to the theater because every play uncovers people, stories and a part of the world which my (self)-ghettoized, provincial Gypsy-hillbilly mind could never see otherwise.