English language world stage premiere of ‘Insulted. Belarus’: Agitprop in Santa Monica
Randall Wulff as Oldster, the Moustache Man

SANTA MONICA, Calif. —  Insulted. Belarus is a 90-minute agitprop play specifically about Alexander Lukashenko’s dictatorship in landlocked Belarus, one of the former republics of the USSR, bordered by Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia. Its population is just over 9 million and occupies land slightly smaller than the state of Kansas. The play centers on the 2020 election, when candidate Sviatlana Tikhanovskaya, perceived to be the winner, was forced to sign a concession allowing Lukashenko to remain in power. He has been president of his country since 1994, the longest-serving head of state in Europe.

Agitprop theater, almost by definition, employs big, bold, exaggerated cartoon-like characters—seven here—designated not by name but by their role in society: Oldster, the Moustache Man (Randall Wulff), Youth, the son (Courtney Brechemin), Novice, a candidate (Angela Beyer), Cheerful, the sister (Devin Davis-Lorton), Raptor, a storm-trooper (Andrew Loviska), Corpse, a protester (Anthony M. Sannazzaro), and Mentor, a teacher (Juliet Morrison).

These roles, or comparable ones, could be replicated, changing names and countries, with any number of places around the world these days. The fate of liberal democracy hangs on fragile threads, nowhere more so than in the United States, which already saw a constitutional coup d’état attempt on Jan. 6, 2021, and where the leading candidate for the Republican nomination—the instigator of that coup—is running on an openly announced authoritarian, dictatorial (read: fascist) program.

From left, Andrew Loviska as Raptor, a storm-trooper, Angela Beyer, as Novice, a candidate, and Randall Wulff as Oldster, the Moustache Man

Perhaps there’s little Americans can do about Pres. Lukashenko in Belarus, but there’s still plenty to do to make sure the coup-meister of 2021 does not reoccupy the White House. That reason alone suffices to experience this particular piece of theater.

It might be of interest to know something about the playwright, his play, and about the translator.

Andrei Kureichik is among the foremost playwrights, screenwriters, and producers in Belarus. His plays have been performed at the prestigious Moscow Art Theatre, the Janka Kupala Theaters in Moscow and Minsk, and numerous others throughout the former Soviet Union. Prior to 2020, as a writer and director, Kureichik was appreciated for his comedies and suspense thrillers. Following the contested presidential election and brutal aftermath in Belarus in August 2020, he has gained an international following as a political playwright. Forced to flee his country as a member of the Coordination Council working with presumed winner Sviatlana Tikhanovskaya’s transition team, Kureichik directed his creative energy into the documentary play Insulted. Belarus. This topical, timely play has been translated into 29 languages and received 250 readings and performances across the globe. His follow-up play was a verbatim piece about Belarusian political prisoners titled Voices of the New Belarus. His latest work is Insulted. Planet, presented at the Vallila National Theatre in Finland in September.

As a member of the Coordination Council of Belarus, Kureichik was awarded the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought by the European Parliament. He was a Yale World Fellow in 2022 and in 2023 accepted a position as Lecturer at Yale University. Kureichik came to Santa Monica, adjoining the City of Los Angeles, in November for the opening weekend of the English-language world premiere production Insulted. Belarus.

John Freedman, the translator into English, was critical in organizing global interest in producing the various avatars of the play—on Zoom, readings, radio, and on stage. Freedman is a writer and translator originally from the L.A. area, who, after working 30 years in Russia, now lives on the island of Crete in Greece. He lived in Moscow from 1988 to 2018, where he was the theater critic of The Moscow Times (1992-2015). Earlier this month, City Garage presented a reading of Voices of the New Belarus, based on the testimony, letters, interviews, and memoirs of the people involved in the fight against Lukashenko’s regime. He describes it as “an equally hard-hitting requiem for what the eventual failure of that revolution doomed so many people to suffer.”

These Two Plays of Revolution have been combined into a book published by Egret Acting Editions of Laertes Press.

Seven characters in search of a play

Kureichik begins his play with Oldster (Lukashenko) condemning the theater, as well as art galleries, as “vermin” providing “fake” and “stupid” “entertainment” of no interest to the peasants, tractor drivers, and workers of Belarusian villages. The ideal country, to him, would be one of horses: They’re quiet, they obey, they wear blinders, and they work till they die.

From left, Devin Dabis-Lorton as Cheerful, the sister, Anthony M. Sannazzaro as Corpse, a protester, and Andrew Loviska as Raptor, a stork-trooper.

From time to time, as the characters speak, their image is captured on video and simultaneously projected, suggesting that these iterations are of wider journalistic interest—as it was to Sergei, a video news blogger who’s now languishing in prison and may soon be losing his right ball if his wife doesn’t concede the election. Video of demonstrations in the streets and public squares is a prominent feature of the production.

Cheerful is looking forward to her sister’s wedding and has a new, expensive white and red dress for it. Sister Masha, whom we don’t see, is already pregnant by Raptor, who has to postpone the wedding at the last minute because he’s been summoned to urgent duty with the riot police (“a storm-trooper” in the name of his role) to violently suppress the budding revolution against Lukashenko’s tampering with the election results. The Mentor, actually a school principal just four years away from earning her full retirement pension, is charged with persuading members of the district electoral council to fix the vote in the president’s favor. Youth is the president’s son who, like many youth around the world, is obsessed with the internet and questions why it keeps going down. Like other children, he is somewhat rebellious against his father’s tyranny and impertinently questions what’s become of his mother.

Finally, we have Novice, the candidate herself, married to Sergei. She’s a paragon of democratic principle, who never intended to go into politics but felt that someone needed to oppose Lukashenko. Seemingly, a majority of the voters felt the same way, at least judging by the overwhelming numbers of voters, seen by election observers, entering the polls with white bracelets. And we have Corpse, a militant for democracy, who does not fit his name for most of the play, but may have earned it by the end after Raptor beats him mercilessly as he continues to stand up and sing his freedom anthem.

Kureichik is effective in showing how, despite the president’s police-state authoritarianism, a certain grateful percentage of the population are persuaded that he still merits support because, after all, they have stability—steady jobs, bonuses, vacations, pensions—and that’s the tradeoff, whatever “propaganda from the West” says. And at least according to state news, Belarusians aren’t dying of Covid—rather of other, suddenly acquired natural causes. Now state news reports (and how could it be wrong?) that the president won with 81% of the vote.

Among people of Raptor’s ilk, they enjoy the violence, explicitly erotic in nature, they can deploy against “fascist thugs,” “criminals” and other anti-social types stirring up trouble for the president. Some of his kind may have fond memories of being part of the great USSR, feeling that their country meant something in the world. And who knows, if we didn’t have Lukashenko, surely we’d have Putin! Though by now, most people under 40 have little or no recall of Soviet times. Eventually, after Cheerful, his future sister-in-law recognizes him in prison as her torturer, he realizes that “Sooner or later they’re going to start pulling off our masks.”

A sketch of Andrei Kureichik by Biba Kayewich

Is there room for nuance?

Director Frédérique Michel imbues her characters with far greater emotional depth than the cardboard agitprop aesthetic might suggest, even as the roles themselves allow for scant nuance. Yet with several characters, like the Teacher, whose daughter has been brought in for interrogation, or like the superficial Cheerful, ravaged in prison, or like Youth himself, lights go on in their hearts and brains as beacons of hope for the next wave of fearless protest. Charles A. Duncombe is the producer and production designer, who created a kind of “blackbox” atmosphere with a few chairs, platforms, and staging areas.

One of the concerns I had before seeing Insulted. Belarus was that nuance might indeed be the one thing in scarcity. I never was in Minsk, capital city of Belarus, nor anywhere in the country. But when I visited two republics of the USSR, the Russian and the Ukrainian, in 1980 (35 years after the end of WWII) everyone our peace group spoke with mentioned the dread of war and invasion. Belarus, in fact, was the single hardest hit of the Soviet republics, through which the Nazi armies marched, raped, and torched. The governors of the postwar republic were mostly Communist partisans who had fought the Nazis, even as 85% of its industrial plant had been destroyed. Honoring that sacrifice after the war, the UN created separate national representations for Belarus as well as for Ukraine, in addition to the USSR’s vote.

With the spread of NATO throughout the formerly Soviet-aligned nations of Eastern Europe, Lukashenko and his friends—few though they may be now, yet still so powerful—may be fearing a new invasion, not just military, but economic. For, like Russia, or at least like the “commanding heights” of the Russian economy, Belarus’s industrial establishment, under Lukashenko, is still state-owned, that is, in theory, owned collectively by the people of the country. For some, that could be a remaining source of pride in Belarus that still evokes a certain loyalty irrespective of Lukashenko personally. A political victory by “democratic” Western-allied and -financed forces might not produce the sunny results the Belarusian people expect. And if they do, a NATO membership cannot be far behind, sure to gall the Russians even more.

But that’s just rumination on the part of someone who has a surviving degree of regard for the positive, anti-imperialist role the USSR played in the postwar world, for keeping the idea of collective ownership alive and meaningful, and for helping to keep the peace in Europe for 45 years. Those days will never return, and I do believe that whatever vote the Belarusians take ought to be respected.

Belarus map

Could there be an economy where the collectivity of the people own the principal industries of the land yet where political and civic life is democratic in practice as well as in theory? That is to me the great question progressives face as we look past and beyond the narrow debate defined by the Biden-Trump, Democratic-Republican parameters.

Throughout the play’s run, City Garage has been promoting donations to aid the fight for democracy in Belarus through the Viasna Human Rights Center. The organization was founded by activist Ales Bialiatski in 1996 to contribute to the development of a civic society in Belarus based on respect for human rights. Viasna (“spring” in Belarusian) provides legal defense for citizens and political prisoners and promotes democratic change. Bialiatski was imprisoned on trumped-up charges in 2021, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2022, and was sentenced to 10 years in prison in 2023. For more information see the Viasna website.

Insulted. Belarus is performed Fri. and Sat. at 8:00 p.m., and Sun. at 4:00 p.m., closing on Dec. 17. Sun. is “Pay-What-You-Can” at the door (or full price for advance reservations). Tickets are available by calling (310) 453-9939 or at the City Garage website. The theater is located at Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave., Building T1, Santa Monica 90404.

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Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon, People’s World Cultural Editor, wrote a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein and co-authored composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography. He has received numerous awards for his People's World writing from the International Labor Communications Association. He has translated all nine books of fiction by Manuel Tiago (pseudonym for Álvaro Cunhal) from Portuguese, available from International Publishers NY.