Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Where We're Going


Contributed by guest blogger of the week, Blessed Unrest.

Next fall our company and Teatri Oda will create another original bilingual (English/Albanian) play based on the ancient Albanian tradition of the sworn virgin, to perform in Kosova and New York. The Sworn Virgin will be based on an ancient Albanian tradition, still in existence today, in which women take an oath of lifelong celibacy in exchange for the right to live as men. The virgjinesha, or sworn virgins, take the oath (or are forced to take it) for many reasons including to replace a family’s patriarch if no other males are living, to avoid an arranged marriage without disgracing the groom’s family, to gain independence in the male dominated society, or because they feel more comfortable as men. They cut their hair, dress, work, and are treated as men, despite the community knowing the sworn virgins are women. These women, who were not able to vote or own property before, could now become heads of households or political leaders as sworn virgins. However, despite their social and financial independence, sworn virgins are denied sexual relations on pain of death.

We are intrigued by this tradition and the ability of the Albanian community to immediately and completely alter their perception of and response to these women; to see them one day as “a sack made to endure” (so states the Kanun or Albanian tribal law) and the next as a member of the male ruling class. We are also interested in our own society’s inability to alter its gaze with regard to Americans who choose to self identify as the opposite gender.

Kosovar and Albanian society today, and the theatre created there, continues to be very male-centric, and this project is an opportunity to explore the experiences of women, this remarkable tradition, the ways it is repressive and liberating, why it is fading and what that says about Albanian women and their struggle for equality.

Americans and Kosovar Albanians have close ties politically, since the breakup of Yugoslavia and subsequent Balkan War in the 1990's, yet we understand little about each other culturally or artistically. America’s relationship with the Balkans is unbalanced; we predominately bring aid and try to solve problems. Blessed Unrest’s work with Teatri Oda engenders a different kind of communication, in which we exchange ideas and perspectives, and work together to create art.

For centuries Albanians have been marginalized in Europe and America, often viewed as lowly criminals. There are over 300,000 Albanians living in New York City, often disguising their identity to avoid discrimination. Albanian is one of the oldest languages on the planet, not directly related to any other, and few Americans have ever heard it spoken. Our work together shows that there is respect for and interest in Albanian culture by Americans and gives the artists and audience a direct and tangible connection to the history and traditions of Kosovar and Albanian people.

Our work with Oda has had a huge impact on the lives of the artists involved and the subsequent creative work of our company. The challenges and thrills of traveling, creating and performing with Oda, and experiencing Albanian culture and the openness and appreciation with which audiences received our work, blew all of our minds. The Oda artists are more than just our creative partners, feeling more like family. We look forward to deepening our relationships and continuing to learn from each other as we create more plays together. 


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