Slave Theater

Polish Actors Come to the South Bronx To Find Freedom

Last summer, the South Bronx encountered Poland through the hallucinatory medium of an Ubu play.Teatr Polski and a local troupe called Live From the Edge toured Poland together in an old bus--with separate-but-equal Ubus.This summer, they would go for full integration. The plan, at least,was to meet in the Bronx and emerge with one play from their two companies, two countries, and at least two languages. But as they began work on Alfred Jarry's Ubu enchaîné (Slave Ubu), they found that they also had two freedoms, two slaveries. And maybe two agendas.

The germ of the Ubu idea came loaded with potential for cultural misunderstanding. Several years ago, Teatr Polski's director, Wieslaw Gorski, was riding a New York subway when a black man approached him, holding his hands out as if handcuffed, telling Gorski something like, "You're the white man and I'm still in chains." Gorski wanted to say, "I'm from Poland and I'm enslaved too," but he decided that such a statement "wouldn't reach out." Actually, he was speechless. He noticed that he was the only white man on the train. Then, another black man made what Gorski called a "solidarity manifesto with me." This second man was saying, "We are brothers and sisters."

This incident inspired Gorski to dream of doing Slave Ubu with an all-black cast. The 52-year-old had been directing the proto-modernist classic Ubu Roi (Ubu the King) in Poland for years. That had been his "freedom-fighter text"--this play in which the monstrous Pa Ubu murders his way to the throne of Poland and then ravages the country. In all the Jarry plays, Ubu is a gross nihilistic dolt, opposing not just conformity but common sense and decency. I was surprised the authorities allowed him to present it at all. "I could only play matinees," Gorski noted. "I could only play a small room, could never take it to any festival. And never out of the city."

Now, Gorski says, Slave Ubu is the play that speaks to the situation in Poland. The absurd plot has Pa and Ma Ubu gaining freedom by aspiring to become galley slaves. Gorski thinks that Poles are like the black man on the subway--"He was in a free country, but he felt the chains on him. He couldn't get rid of them."

American artist Carey Clark, who'd done some sets for Teatr Polski, suggested that Gorski work with a black director, and she introduced him to Steven Sapp. The 32-year-old Sapp was intrigued by the concept of the play, but when he read it, Slave Ubu didn't exactly speak to him. The text seemed archaic, even faintly offensive. So, while retaining its characters and antic irreverence, Sapp wrote his own Ubu. In place of the scene where an eager-to-serve Ubu applies shoe polish to someone's bare feet, Sapp had Ubu applying blackface. His Ma and Pa Ubu sing "The Star-Spangled Banner" while scratching themselves ferociously. And he had an actor (himself) dragged from the audience and lynched. "We wanted to show them what black America is," said Sapp, "in their face."

Last year, the two directors didn't even try to meld their two versions.Audiences saw, for example, Polish Ubu applying shoe polish, then American Ubu applying blackface. If the meld doesn't take this summer either, they can always do last year's show when the play opens at The Point, at 940 Garrison Avenue in the South Bronx, on August 21.

The conflict seemed to be about a willingness to take risks. The Americans weren't just more willing to take them, but more inclined to think that that is the whole point.

"If you're going to collaborate, you have to get into some stuff," said Sapp. "I don't know if they're capable of doing that." Sapp recalled that during the very first rehearsal, the Polish actors talked about the impossibility of doing their "own thing" as actors in Poland. It was career suicide. They would lose the total state support they enjoyed as members of a repertory company in the town of Bydgoszcz.

"You have companies just made of cowards," Gorski agreed. "Cowards is the wrong accusation, but--people who don't want to be on the blacklist. It corrupted our companies." And since the fall of Communism, nothing in the theater infrastructure has changed. "We honestly want to try to do differently," Gorski said, "but because of being within the system, we are afraid. Shit scared."

Americans will take risks because they have a sense of possibility, and The Point itself illustrates that. Sapp, with Paul Lipson, Mildred Ruiz, and Maria Torres, had been working down the street at a traditional South Bronx social service organization where they felt "disenchanted and bored." Every day, they passed the abandoned bagel factory at the other end of the block. Finally they decided to stop griping and act on their ambitious plan to take it over. The artist Roy Lichtenstein quietly gave them a deposit for the place. And if they didn't know where all the next dollars might come from, they decided they'd get them somewhere. They quit their jobs and spent a year working on the rehab.

Next Page »