Romanian Roma use theater to address bigotry

A feminist Roma theater company is staging plays to highlight the racism and sexism that Roma women are subjected to in Romania. The group uses art to raise awareness of the social issues facing marginalized Roma, the largest ethnic minority in Europe.

Andreea Campeanu/Reuters
Elena Duminica braids Mihaela Dragan's hair before performing in their play 'Gadjo Dildo,' during the 'Roma Theatre is not Nomadic' tour, in Cluj-Napoca, Romania, Nov. 5, 2017.

Inside the gray walls of an independent theater in the northwest Romanian city of Cluj, Roma actress Elena Duminica braided the hair of her colleague Mihaela Dragan ahead of their show.

As she braided, the theater tested the lights for the play, "Gadjo Dildo," a cabaret-like performance inspired by real stories about the sexism and racism Roma women are often subject to in Romania.

The title is a play on words from a 1997 film, "Gadjo Dilo," which means "Crazy Stranger" in Romani, the language of the 2 million Roma in the country, around a tenth of the population.

It is the first play staged by the Romanian feminist Roma theater company Giuvlipen, which Ms. Dragan co-founded in 2014 because she saw no alternative for the way Roma people were represented in the arts.

"We advocate for Roma artists to have a voice, because Roma art was pretty marginalized and never valued, always stereotyped. I think this is our role, to make Roma art mainstream and cool, so that people come to our shows and talk about them."

There was no word for feminism in Romani, so Dragan and her colleagues created one – Giuvlipen. The troupe has staged performances inspired by real events that deal with discrimination, arranged under-age marriages, lack of access to education, mental illness, and Roma LGBT issues.

The Roma are Europe's largest ethnic minority. Out of an estimated 10 million to 12 million, more than half live in the European Union, which Romania joined in 2007, and many are victims of prejudice and social exclusion.

In Romania, the World Bank has estimated 9 out of 10 Roma live in severe material deprivation, most of them children, lacking access to basic education and health care.

Social inclusion programs and anti-discrimination laws are in place, but racism against the minority goes back centuries in the country, where Roma were kept as slaves by monasteries or local overlords until the 19th century.

Roughly 25,000 Roma were deported from Romanian-controlled territory during World War II, when the country was an ally of Nazi Germany. Almost half of them died.

Giuvlipen tells these stories, while trying to show Roma culture is "alive, contemporary, vanguardist, progressive," said Dragan, who also acts at Berlin's Maxim Gorki Theatre.

Throughout the fall, Giuvlipen – based in capital Bucharest – toured the country under the headline "Roma Theatre is not Nomadic," campaigning to open a state-funded Roma theater.

Romania funds theaters for its Jewish, Hungarian, and German minorities. Giuvlipen has yet to make a formal request for funding, but have invited city hall officials to their shows.

"There is need for contemporary Roma culture, because people just know the sensational things they see on TV," said Giuvlipen member and actress Zita Moldovan. "A Roma theater could tell stories, it would be useful for both us and the Romanian population," she said.

This story was reported by Reuters.

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