With so many crises — countless more — who can truly say we love our neighbors if this suffering is allowed to continue? Sep 30, 2017
By Ryan Diaz
Belarus Free Theatre: Burning Doors (photo: Alex Brenner)
In The Brother’s Karamazov, the titular brothers Ivan and Alyosha grapple with the capacity for any one person to truly love their neighbor. Ivan doubts neighborly love, that the kind of love shared within community is abstract at best. He argues that love only blooms at a distance. We may love each other in times of peace, but what happens when the suffering of others is brought right up to doorsteps?
In this current time and place, I can immediately conjure the decimation of Puerto Rico and the Caribbean after back to back hurricanes, the plight of Dreamers and undocumented immigrants, and systemic racial oppression in America, to name a few. While watching Belarus Free Theatre’s Burning Doors at On the Boards, a packed audience bore witness to testimony from our neighbors across the globe facing the political persecution of artists under dictatorship. With so many crises—countless more—who can truly say we love our neighbors if this suffering is allowed to continue? Perhaps loving our neighbors, in other words, is a performance.
As Belarus Free Theatre recreated Ivan and Alyosha’s debate from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novel, I found myself expanding and collapsing the scale of the neighborhoods to whom we hold ourselves accountable. How do we show our love? Is it enough?
There are communities we choose to live in, but also networks of humanity in the darkest corners of our world. When Maria Alyokhina, member of Pussy Riot, was imprisoned after a guerrilla political performance in a Moscow cathedral and then released after global outcry, she was criticized for meeting with another activist instead of immediately attending to her son. When asked why, when accused of neglecting her sacred role as a mother, she said she had made a promise to the other women still behind bars. As demonstrated by the staging of Burning Doors’ set, the depravity of prison recreates and warps our conventions of community. People in prison cells are still neighbors. The third act, inspired by the conditions under incarceration, is brutish and violent. Performers hurl their bodies through space as metaphor for power and diminishment.
When another activist in the performance says that his mother taught him to love the police and distrust his neighbors, I felt a particular jolt of recognition in how that plays out in our world today. Has it become too natural that one would place the police and the people as opposing forces? Is this the logical end of Ivan Karamazov’s pessimism? What happens when neighbors police each other, when we can no longer take a knee in protest, when we can’t nail our bodies to the ground?
Belarus Free Theatre performs their plays in the West while in their home country an underground network of artists, audiences, and activists stage unofficial events in secrecy. Their web of trust emphasizes how reliance on close ties and mutual trust in one’s community is vital in sustaining artistic freedom. Let too many know, however, and opening themselves to the public they wish to inspire could expose them to the abuse of the state. Who can you trust and who do you keep in the dark? Can you trust your neighbors?
And yet some hope. In the conclusion, pierced through with song as rapturous as it is ominous, Belarus Free Theatre asserts that fear is the only thing holding us back from the kind of love for one another that seems impossible. Fear holds us back from the freedom each soul deserves. Fear is the root of our failures in compassion.
During a mid-performance Q&A, when someone in the audience of neighbors asked what can be done in our current political reality amidst so much injustice, Alyokhina reminded us there can always be more action. When the political refugees who make up Belarus Free Theatre discovered the initial wave of sympathy was receding in their new home in London, they created a play to insist against complacency and summon the horrors of persecution so that we may save each other. When human rights are in danger, when expression is silenced, we can and must organize together to fight for decency. We communicate past language barriers, we turn to art to remember what’s at stake and what’s possible. Is that not love?
In Burning Doors, Belarus Free Theatre—like so many other brave artists, activists, organizers, and dreamers—are telling us that there is so much more work to be done. We are capable of offering more love and compassion than we are led to believe is possible.
What should we do if our neighbor is banging at our door pleading for freedom, but injustice has locked it shut? Burn it down.
Ryan Diaz is a Filipino designer, writer, activist, and Celine Dion superfan. Boogies with Au Collective, teaches social justice-centered self-defense.
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