The country’s theater is becoming popular, and provocative, again.by Salimjon Aioubov 31 May 2011
DUSHANBE | At the heart of the old city center in the Tajik capital, a bulldozer is razing to the ground what once was a monumental market building. Called Barakat, meaning opulence, the Soviet-era market was once the most convenient place to shop for the city’s residents.
Now workers are demolishing the food stalls, knocking down the walls, and removing the fences.
Passers-by look on disapprovingly at the demolition work, but for others it’s a promising development. For on this site soon will rise the first theater to open in the city since 1977.
Dushanbe boasts more than two dozen professional drama companies, and which of them will make the new theater its home is the source of fierce competition among them.
After decades of stagnation and decay, dragged down by the poorest economy in the former Soviet Union, the theater in this country of 7 million is showing signs of revival.
One was the return of the Parastu (Swallow) drama festival in Dushanbe that included 17 diverse shows, from the classical to the experimental. It was a far cry from the last edition, in 2007, which ended in disaster, owing to a lack of daring shows and audience interest.
Also returning to the Tajik stage after four years is the Navruz Central Asian Theater Festival.
Tajik theater companies are inviting émigré actors and directors back to the country, if only for one-off events, and many companies are reviving their most popular drama productions from the 1990s, on the hunch that they will speak to audiences today.
And the number of shows staged here is rising impressively. Forty-seven productions were staged in Tajikistan in 2010, a huge increase from the 15 or fewer productions in each of the previous several years.
Four plays written for a play-writing competition that was restarted by the Culture Ministry two years ago were so successful that they have been staged not only in Tajikistan but also in Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Afghanistan.
The interest of audiences is growing too. Although most people still cannot afford to go to the theater often, almost all premieres gather full houses.
And there are signs that the theater is starting to matter. Two years ago, authorities attempted to ban a play titled Madness Year ’93.
The piece was staged by director Barzu Abdurazzakov, known for his controversial productions, and inspired by the play Marat/Sade by Peter Weiss. The authorities reckoned the production was drawing a parallel between the overthrow of the monarchy in the French Revolution and a mood of anti-regime protest in Tajikistan.
Tajikistan was devastated by a civil war in the mid-1990s and postwar recovery has been slow and painful. The average monthly wage is about $92, according to the statistical office for the Commonwealth of Independent States. The government has adopted an authoritarian stance toward the media and restricted democratic and religious freedoms.
In the tumult of the 1990s, serious drama disappeared from the stage. Many theaters let out their premises to private trading companies. The few venues that survived tended to put on light entertainment shows or comedies.
It was a dispiriting decade for the country’s actors and directors. Many lost hope and either fled from Tajikistan or left the theater altogether, and started to earn a living by whatever means they could. Many talented actors, left without work, money, or hope, died prematurely.
In the country’s 20 years of independence, Tajik film studios have produced only three full-length features. The country’s leading filmmakers, including Jamshed Usmonov, Bakhtiyar Khudoinazarov, and Valery Akhadov, left long ago to work in Germany, France, and Russia.
But when Madness Year ’93 was suppressed, an avalanche of public protest forced the Culture Ministry to relent.
“I couldn’t believe they could go as far as banning a theater production,” Zebo Khadzhieva, a dedicated Dushanbe theatergoer, said. “And for God’s sake, why go and close down a show that deals with events in France way back in the 18th century?”
“The authorities obviously saw red when they read the title. Most likely, it led the bureaucrats to believe the director was pointing to the 1993 coup in Tajikistan, when the country was on the brink of civil war and the current political elite turned things to their own advantage and seized power.”
Rajab Maraimov, a theater critic for the Nigoh newspaper, said the scale of the protest made the difference. “The scandal was impossible to hush up,” Maraimov said. “The Culture Ministry had either to bring the show back or to officially admit the existence of censorship in the country – which, of course, violates the constitution.”
Abdurazzakov, the director, said the outpouring of support from theatergoers came just at the right time and gave him the energy to fight on.
“I was incredibly touched when I learned that people had bombarded the Culture Ministry with letters of outrage,” he said. “This means that not only did these people have the guts to protest and defend the value of the theater, but also that the theater is back on the right track, and re-establishing its long-lost links with the people.”
“Today, those who wonder ‘Where is our country going?’ and ‘Why do we live the way we do?’ have started to look for answers in the theater,” Abdurazzakov said.
“The theater talks to spectators in their own language, examines the issues that trouble them most, and supplies the kind of answers about their lives and where they are going that no official, no bureaucrat is capable of providing,” the director said.
Theater critic Shavkat Kudratov agreed. “When the country is recovering from the horrors of the civil war and the most difficult years are behind us, thinking people in Tajikistan have more energy and more time to contemplate the future of their country and of their own lives,” he said.
After the sensation of Madness Year ’93, the current big hit with audiences is The Chair of Sultan Makhmud, based on a play by actor and dramatist Shodi Soleh and put on by the Abulkasym Lahuti theater in Dushanbe.
The play centers on a throne that nobody wants to vacate and the intrigue and corruption that result.
“This is the sort of production that those in power had better not attend, especially judging by what happened with Madness,” Maraimov said. “If the bureaucrats recognize themselves in this production, we’ll face the show being banned and another crisis.”
Prominent Tajik writer Rastokhez Bakhmaner accepts that the younger generation in Tajikistan has a limited interest in the theater. However, he points out that middle-aged and older generations are returning to the theaters.
Bakhmaner said Soviet-era theatergoers would attend productions of big names like Sophocles, Shakespeare, Mikhail Bulgakov, Anton Chekhov, and Hakim Ferdowsi, a revered 10th-century Persian poet. “Now they’re curious to see what sort of direction modern Tajik theater is going to take. More and more up-and-coming directors are looking east, rather than west, for inspiration, and Iran is a rich source of ideas for them.”
The neighboring states of Iran and Afghanistan have long had strong cultural and ethnic ties with Tajikistan. Although most theater directors and actors in Tajikistan were trained in Russia, cultural exchanges with the Eastern countries have grown steadily and the cultural landscape is becoming more diverse.
Another spur to the theatrical renaissance has been, ironically, the government’s tight grip on information, Kudratov, the critic, said.
With television under strict government control, the film industry moribund, and books expensive, “The theater is happy to fill that niche for the free-thinking, however small it is. It is the new haven for those who want food for thought, rather than easy escapism to distract them from their troubles,” he said.
Indeed, the apparent dissident spirit of some of the shows seems to have spooked the authorities. The government has been churning out statements calling on the theatrical community to focus on inspiring the younger generation and imbuing them with patriotism.
Although some theater groups can withstand such pressure, most troupes are funded directly by the state, which makes resistance risky.
Actors in Tajikistan earn meager salaries of not more than $200 per month. In addition to state funding, most troupes receive modest sponsorships from individual entrepreneurs, large companies, or international cultural foundations.
But the theaters are learning to navigate the conflicts between funding and freedom. While the government is paying for productions marking the 20th anniversary of Tajik independence, and is even designating which plays will be performed for the occasion, theater companies are looking to plays like Madness Year ’93 and The Chair of Sultan Makhmud to inject a dose of satire and free-thinking into the mix.
So the battle for creativity and freedom of expression is not lost in Tajikistan. The top prize in that battle is neither the site on which the Barakat market stood nor a lucrative government grant. Rather, it is the return of the audience.