Slave Theater

Polish Actors Come to the South Bronx To Find Freedom

"We were a joke in the neighborhood," Sapp recalls. Now they're an institution, open for three years and officially classified as "a community development cultural and economic revitalization organization." The Point could well be the prototype for nonprofit arts organizations of the future, because it survives on entrepreneurship. All around the two-story arcade are small spaces rented out to local businesses--for example, a hiphop clothing store, a record store specializing in area DJs, and an office for the Tats Cru, graffitists who've parlayed their skills with a subway car into full-time signage work. "We try to teach the people, the kids, that they are the agents of change," said Sapp. "That if anything's going to happen in your community, it's going to happen because of you, not because somebody else came in here."

The actors had been working at The Point for a week when I walked into an end-of-rehearsal discussion. One of the American performers, Brian Anderson, was suggesting that Teatr Polski deviate from the text to include something of the reality of Poland. Gorski, who was also serving as interpreter, insisted that the play as written was about their reality. "In Polish tradition, through the years of oppression when a censor came to the dress rehearsal, we used a lot of irony." Also, what the Americans wanted from them smacked of socialist realism, the style they were forced to use under Communism, and therefore despised.

The Polish actors weren't talking much. True, they speak little or no English, but they didn't seem to be asking Gorski to relay their sentiments to the American cast. Later the director complained to me that the Polish cast is too obedient, that this is part of the problem. Under Communism, the great Polish theatrical innovator Jerzy Grotowski's method--with its emphasis on consciousness and its kinship with the Living Theatre--was not taught. "To teach young people to express themselves would have been dangerous to the system," Gorski explained. "So the actors don't know how to open up. They don't know how to speak because in the past, the director was the master. They were slaves."

Two days later, the casts had gone back to rehearsing separately. Gorski told me that the Poles would be the structure and the Americans would be the structure breakers. "I said to Steve, if you see us enslaved within some kind of structure, we are. So, bring in your freedom. What is your freedom of expression?"

Sapp expressed a bit of frustration. "If these people leave here and don't feel that they've creatively traveled anywhere, then it's been a failure." He thought the struggle to bring the play into being said more about freedom and slavery than Ubu ever had.

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