In the Gorki Theater’s Roma Armee, Yael Ronen stages a rallying cry for unity and justice.
“Burn them!” cried the jubilant crowd in the English town of Firle in 2003. Bonfire night, a centuries-old tradition rooted in anti-Catholicism, had become the town’s occasion to burn in effigy anyone who had gotten on their collective nerves. After gypsies allegedly made a mess of a local estate, the bonfire organizers built a caravan with the faces of a Roma family painted on its windows and set it alight. Condemnation followed after a resident with a Romani grandmother contacted the media. She and her seven-year-old daughter had looked on in horror that night. Now, the seven-year-old is grown-up and telling that and other stories as part of Roma Armee, Yael Ronen’s new ensemble project at the Maxim Gorki Theater.
Roma Armee owes something to the documentary style of Rimini Protokoll: The cast play themselves, taking turns telling the audience about their lives, families, feelings and suffering while emphasising their diversity as individuals. It’s an act of cultural resistance to what others have called “the last acceptable racism”. But what kind of resistance? The poster, featuring a grimacing woman with a handgun and a bandolier draped around her neck, seems to promise an evening of rage and militancy. But while the mostly-Roma ensemble frequently express anger at their abuse, the show at its core is a plea – alternately bitter, humorous and sentimental – for understanding and sympathy. This can occasionally make Roma Armee feel like a public service announcement, even as it strives to make its didacticism entertaining with comic zingers and musical interludes.
Balancing the traumatic life stories, the script’s trajectory aims at redemption: the performers begin by listing what they’re ashamed of and discussing hardships, but end by naming sources of pride and describing their visions for a better future. If it sounds syrupy, that’s because it often is. What redeems the evening is the talent, energy, and sincerity of the performers – and the disturbing sense that the show is a necessary counter to old prejudices stubbornly widespread in Europe.
Roma Armee, Oct 13-15, 19:30 (English/German, with surtitles) | Maxim Gorki Theater