By Amy Zimmer
MANHATTAN - Members of the Belarus Free Theatre barely escaped imprisonment in their native country after a post-election demonstration to sneak out to perform here in this month's Under the Radar Festival.
The festival of alternative international theater is now over, but the Belarus Free Theatre is staging an encore benefit performance Monday night at the Public Theater - which produced the festival - to raise awareness (and money) for their plight.
Just before coming to New York City for their sold-out run at the East Village's La MaMa, the troupe was forced under the radar - literally - following the Dec. 19 and 20 protests against the disputed presidential election. The company's manager Artiom Zhelezniak was arrested with other artists and activists, according to the Public Theater.
To come to the East Village's La MaMa to perform its play "Being Harold Pinter" - which incorporates statements by Belarussian political prisoners with writings by Pinter - the group's members had to sneak out of Belarus, hiding in trucks and cars, often changing vehicles to thwart government security forces on their tail, according to a recent New York Times article.
Even before the recent election, the politically engaged troupe was very underground to maintain its free expression in an authoritarian state. It presented unpublicized works for an audience reached through text messages and met at another location before being escorted to its tiny studio by a cast member, the Times reported.
The biographies of troupe members in the show's program notes discuss how almost everyone in the company has faced arrest, beatings or jail for their art's sake, according to NYTheater.com.
Besides Monday night's performance, hosted by famed playwrights Tom Stoppard and Tony Kushner, the Public is also mounting a protest Wednesday afternoon in front of the Permanent Mission of the Republic of Belarus to the United Nations on East 67th Street.
Another benefit Wednesday night will be held for the group at Le Poisson Rouge with reading by Tom Stoppard, E.L. Doctorow, Don DeLillo, Billy Crudup and other surprise guests.
Amnesty International, which is co-organizing Wednesday's protest with the Public, has called for the unconditional release of 15 Belarusian activists and journalists being charged with "organizing mass disorder" following the post-election demonstration against President Aleksandr Lukashenko.
John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International's Deputy Director for Europe and Central Asia, said in a statement that these 15 being held were "prisoners of conscience, facing trumped up charges purely because of the peaceful expression of their political opinions."
He added, "This prosecution and ill-treatment of people who were demonstrating peacefully shows a blatant disregard for human rights by the Belarusian authorities and merits the strongest condemnation from the international community."
More than 700 people were detained for the participation in the demonstration, Amnesty International said. While most have been released after short administration, key political figures, activists and journalists have remained detained in what the organization believes is a crackdown on opposition activity.
The Public Theater in partnership with Amnesty International will hold a public demonstration at the Permanent Mission of the Republic of Belarus to the United Nations (136 East 67th Street) on Wednesday, Jan. 19 from 12 to 1p.m.
Text the word "PROTEST" to 27138 to receive updates about exact meeting location.