Circles of Friends

John W. ErwinDirectorThe Stories Exchange Project
October 28, 1994: at a National Day rally in Prague’s Old Town Square three thousand right wing extremists howled hatred against foreigners. The roar drowned out tributes to President Tomas G. Masaryk, who founded Czechoslavia in 1918 as a model for multicultural democracy in Central Europe.
But the same evening at the Zizkov Theater the African-American playwright and performance artist Robbie McCauley have the first of three performance/discussions in Prague of SALLY’S RAPE: a dialogue with a white actress about the story of McCauley’s great-great- grandmother, a slave, for which she won an OBIE Award for Best Off-Broadway Play in New York in 1992. The October 28, 1994 performance was the first outside the United States. But what was more significant was the audience.
Many members of the audience that National Day night were Roms who had braved threats of skinhead violence after the rally to come to the theater – thereby disproving the dogma intoned by members of Prague’s theater elite during the previous weeks: “Gypsies don’t go to the theater.” Or, as one theater manager – whose theater was in fact filled a few nights later with Roms – said, with a glance was obviously intended to warn us off: “Gypsies don’t come to OUR theater!”
On National Day night it seemed at first as thoughthe Roms who proved him and his colleagues should not have bothered. A Polish woman living in London objected that the live Czech translation was annoying those who understood the English text of the play, and the Roma when to huddle around the intimidated translator, who now spoke barely above a whisper.
As a male voice called out, they were being sent to the back of the bus.
But the Roms were not daunted. After the performance one after another rose to comment. And in the theater bar afterwards they kept on telling stories that few Czechs, Western Europeans or Americans have heard.
And they and others kept on telling stories after two further performances of SALLY’S RAPE the following week – one in another Romany neighborhood, the second in a Baroque palace belonging to the National Theater – and at workshops and discussions in cafes and kitchens in Prague and Western Bohemia with Czech and American friends, both black and white.
Magda Slepcikova told about being put in prison for two years after stealing a chicken to feed her children.
Her husband Honza told about having been detained by the police when he went to visit a friend who worked for the French Embassy. It took him hours to convince them that he was not a thief or a spy but a person with whom diplomats wanted to be friends, in fact a literary advisor to a prominent Prague theater.
Ilona Ferkova, who had recently won an international prize for the best story written by a Rom in Europe, told about her experience in a maternity ward:
“There were eight of us in the ward; I was the only Romany. Next to me was a Czech woman. She too had a daughter, and when they brought our children to breast-feed, we couldn’t help wondering and talking about what our children would be when they grew up. And we became quite close to each other, telling stories from our lives. Six weeks later when we came back to the clinic, she didn’t say hello to me, and pretended not to know me.”
A white Czech, Mirek Mencl, told about spending weeks in hospital recovering from a beating by skinheads whom he had tried to prevent from attacking two Romany boys in the Prague subway.
And Magda Slepcikova ended National Day at theZizkov Theater by climbing up on the stage to sing verses written in Auschwitz by one of the hundreds of thousands of Roms murdered by the Nazis:
Romany girl,make the fire for me,not small, not big,Romany girl.
I was not at home, I don’t know who came, my girl-friend came,beautiful Romany girl.
This was the beginning of the Stories Exchange Project: “I was not at home.”
The stories told by expanding circles of friends on the night of National Day and throughout Prague and Western Bohemia in the weeks followingshowed what happens in storytelling and other kinds of artistic creation at any time and place.
Storytellers and other artists have no choice but to plunge right in and take their cues from the materials at hand and from situations that develop. They begin without entirely knowing what they are doing or what they are going to do. And they work on and on without knowing how the story, the play, the painting, the dance will come out – or what it will say to you or to me.
But artists also tend to be good at making questions out of the definitions and statements that rule the world, and often provoke us to join them in actively questioning accepted formulations of political, economic and social reality.
It would be foolish to expect storytelling to provide precise models for more open societies. But it would be equally foolish to deny that telling stories can help us know that we are all in this together, can give us the sense of relatedness which is the fundamental requirement for democracy.