I HAD vowed never to come back. But here Mother Russia was calling me to Moscow, my former stomping ground, for an extraordinary opportunity: to hear my Broadway-bound play “The Mountaintop” translated into Russian for a public reading last March as part of a prestigious theater festival. How could I turn it down?
A reading of “The Mountaintop,” and discussion about the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., provided a forum for looking at issues in Russia.
Unlike films, which can be easily disseminated worldwide via DVDs and the Internet, plays struggle to find an international audience. Language is one barrier. It is expensive to give plays subtitles, especially for a short run, so most new dramas rarely cross the transcontinental bridge.
But there is a movement under way. The Lark Play Development Center, in New York, has aided the translation of plays by writers in some 48 countries. A two-way bridge to Russia has just been completed. The Lark has housed Russian playwrights and producers in New York; thanks to the center and a United States government project, four American scripts would be translated into Russian as part of the exchange. “The Mountaintop” — which had already been staged to acclaim in London, winning the 2010 Olivier award as best play — would be the first of them.
On Broadway, Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett are to play the leads, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and a maid in a Memphis motel, starting Sept. 22. But how would we do it in a country where blacks are estimated to be a half percent or less out of a population of 138.7 million?
Serendipity always rewards the prepared.
My first trip to Russia came in 2004, when I was a fledgling actor at the American Repertory Theater Institute at Harvard University, where all first-year students were required to learn Russian and to study at the Moscow Art Theater School. And in 2010 I had reached out to my friend (and Russian translator) Tatyana Khaikin, who brought my play to Konstantin Raikin, the artistic director of Satirikon, a theater company in Moscow.
“I thought it would be cool to be the first country in the world to translate ‘The Mountaintop,’ considering Russia’s reputation on questions of race and color,” Ms. Khaikin said. “I also was very excited about giving the two Russian actors of color a chance to play African-Americans.”
Mr. Raikin had been searching for a play specifically for two actors in his company, Grigory Syatwinda and Elizaveta Martinez Cardenas. The two happen to be the only black actors working in repertory theater in all of Moscow, Satirikon being the first company to employ nontraditional casting.
The stars had aligned, and I was left sharpening my Russian. Kak dela? (How are you?) Priviet! (Hello!) And my personal favorite: Ya hachu moloko. (I would like some milk.) But my own memories of Moscow replayed in my mind, and friends and family expressed concern: “I’m worried about you. It’s not safe for you there.”
No warnings, or even the subtle experiences with racism during my childhood in Memphis, could have prepared me for Moscow during that first visit. Swastikas were routinely tattooed outside our dormitory; we black students were urged to stay inside on Hitler’s birthday. The rise of neo-Nazism was evident; a black student had been ambushed by skinheads in front of police officers, who refused to help.
Perhaps it was because of my previous visit that I felt even more determined that a play about Dr. King, a man who preached about a colorblind world, would resonate loudly in the white, snowy streets of Russia. I was on a mission.
A Russian King
At our first rehearsal we all sat around a table with quaint porcelain teacups in our hands. A copy of my script lay before me, but I sounded out the Cyrillic to no avail. My tongue had forgotten. “It was a great challenge to translate your play,” Ms. Khaikin said, “because the language is so specific to the South, and the expressions that the characters use are so vivid and so true to that dialect. To make it alive in Russian was very hard.”
Yet because the actors didn’t have a preconceived notion of Dr. King or Southern Americans, they were fearless in their attack of the text. They concentrated more on the action that came forward in the dialogue, and a playful volley of Russian words flew back and forth, rattling the teacups on the rehearsal table.
When I told the story about my inspiration for the piece, my clipped mid-Southern dialect tumbled from my mouth.
“We can hear the cadence and rhythm when Katori speaks,” Dmitry Volkostrelov, the director of the reading, said. “It’s like a kind of music.”
After our second rehearsal the group ate at a famous Georgian restaurant. Pictures of Mike Tyson and Will Smith and other celebrities who had been there lined the walls. I sat across from our two actors, who were more interested in their cigarettes than in the delicious slabs of meat before us. At 5 foot 4 (many people don’t know that Dr. King was short) and with kind eyes, Mr. Syatwinda, 38, would be the perfect King, I thought. With a sly smile he told me of his background.
His mother, a Russian, and his father, a native of Zambia, met while at university in Ukraine. Born in what was then the Soviet Union, he lived as a very young child in Zambia, where he spoke English, but soon moved to Siberia, where he grew up. As the only “brown boy” he received a lot of attention. “Every time I would get on a bus, everyone would just shut up,” he said.
Perhaps it is no wonder that he would become an actor. But it was not without challenges. When Mr. Syatwinda auditioned for the Moscow Art Theater School in the late 1980s, the head of the program told him to go into cinema because “there was nothing in the repertory for me,” he said. He was accepted into another reputable acting school, and upon graduation Mr. Raikin — a graduate of the same school — approached him to join Satirikon, where he experienced a watershed moment.
“When I played Fortinbras in Hamlet, and Raikin said I had a king’s face, that’s when I knew I could play anything,” he said.
Ms. Martinez Cardenas was born to a Russian mother and a Mexican father. She too was approached by Mr. Raikin soon after graduation, and both have played several parts in the company’s repertory. But the company’s colorblind casting has raised some eyebrows. “When the curtain comes up on me and I am onstage, there is a lot of whispering and shuffling in the seats,” she said. “But it soon subsides.”
From Memphis to Moscow
I rushed into the theater fresh from a television interview and was surprised to see a bare-bones set, not just the music stands I was used to at American play readings. There was a table, a telephone and a television screen filled with Dr. King’s face, expectant and wondering. A lot had been achieved in only three days of rehearsal, and it was time for the show to begin. I sat in the last seat in the corner of the house, the best vantage point to gauge the audience’s experience.
Young and old, artists and babushkas all sat on the pewlike seats and prepared to hear a story about an American legend.
Lights up. A man entered the stage, coughing and demanding his friend buy him a pack of Pall Malls. He then went to the restroom upstage left, and the sound of urination filled the space. Laughter from the audience followed. It was evident from the start: The crowd was not watching a myth; they were watching a man.
In just a reading Mr. Syatwinda and Ms. Martinez Cardenas brought Dr. King back from the dead for an hour and a half. We were not in Moscow but in Memphis, and they filled the room with smoke and Russian words. In a testament to the translation, the audience laughed at the same moments English-speaking audiences had laughed. They sniffled at the same times and clapped just as loudly. When the house lights came up the response was overwhelming for the actors, and for me.
At the talkback Elena Kolvaskaya, one of the coordinators of the festival, asked the audience if they understood everything, especially certain American historical references.
“Why does everyone think that the Russian audience is stupid?” asked Maxim Kurochkin, a Russian playwright who has also worked with the Lark. “We don’t need everything explained to us. A play will be understood.” Elena Gremina, another Russian playwright and a founder of Theatre Doc in Moscow, dedicated to documentary theater, was “pulled away at the end because I felt that this was more for America and not Russians,” she said. “There was a lot of pathos. America might have been able to solve their problems, but we in Russia have not.” (She had earlier pointed out that four young Chechen men had been killed in a riot last December.)
I promptly explained that America still experiences flashes of regression today, to which several Russian students expressed surprise. I told the crowd, “We’re more similar than you think.”
Like most playwrights I hate talkbacks with a passion that can burn a hole through hell. But it was at that moment that I saw the bridge truly connect. A play created in America had made a safe space where Russians could honestly address political and social challenges in their society. To see members of this audience examine themselves and their country by looking at a man struggling with the question of equality in a moldy motel room in Memphis long ago was a welcome new memory to replace my dark ones from 2004. I had promised never to return, but this was a promise meant to be broken.