Mihaela Drăgan on Finding Space for Roma Stories in Theatre
Mihaela Drăgan is a Roma actress, playwright, and activist who hails from Romania. She is a prominent contributor to the Roma arts sphere in Europe and heads a Roma acting troupe called Giuvlipen. We recently sat down to speak about the experiences of the Roma people in Europe, her involvement in the European Roma Institute for the Arts, and her hopes to create a space for Roma voices in the theatre. She will be performing her show "Del Duma/Tell Them About Me" as a part of the PEN America World Voices Festival at the Segal Theatre on April 16th. What follows is the transcript of our conversation, edited for clarity and length.
Kaitlyn Heniges: Have you been involved in the European Roma Institute for Arts and Culture (ERIAC) in Berlin?
Mihaela Drăgan: Yes, one of my performances was performed last year when the European Roma Institute (ERIAC) had the opening. We finally now have a place in Berlin for Roma arts.
KH: How important do you believe the government support is of the ERIAC in Berlin? What do you think would happen if the government were to cut support for the institute?
MD: I really hope that they will manage to get more and more government support. I am from Romania, Bucharest, where the Roma people are the second largest minority, but we don’t have any cultural space[s]. My theatre company, Giuvlipen, is working as an independent theatre company, and our main issue with that is that we don’t have a space. In the last years, we produced a lot of plays, and we contributed a lot to the local artistic scene. We were invited to national and international festivals, but we still couldn’t manage to find a space for Roma art and Roma theatre. This is the main problem with Roma culture in Europe, that we don’t have spaces. Now, for the first time, there is a space in Berlin at ERIAC.
KH: Do you think that Berlin is becoming a hub of Roma art and culture because of this institute?
MD: Yeah, and not just because of the institute. Last year, in September, the most successful theatre from Germany, the Maxim Gorki Theater, created a show with us. We did the play for several months and the show was always sold out and received good reviews. I think it is the first time we managed to be in a mainstream theatre space, in Maxim Gorki Theater. Because this happened last year, and now that ERIAC is also in Berlin, I think it is becoming a hub.
KH: With so many important issues facing Roma people, how did you settle on teenage marriage as the central focus of "Del Duma"?
MD: The play touches on many topics but [focuses] especially on early marriage because it is one of the biggest issues for us Roma. Nobody wants to discuss this topic because the Roma, we are reserved about reinforcing these stereotypes about us, that we [have] early marriage. But actually, there are just a few traditional Roma families that are continuing with this practice that comes from Roma slavery. Nobody knows that for 500 years Roma were slaves, and the owners of the Roma would have sexual relations with, and regulations on Roma female slaves. So it is a practice that came from the times of slavery, and is a prohibited topic to speak about in a theatrical play.
I started this project and spoke with Roma women to find out about them, their fights, and thoughts regarding these issues. I wanted to speak out about this and I wanted to give a voice to all these women, but at the same time I wanted to show the non-Roma people where this practice comes from, and the general context of it. The reality is that Roma people are discriminated against and segregated, and the Roma people continue with these practices, and the outcome is that they don’t want to call the police or involve the police.
Violence against Roma women is considered to be a part of our culture and this is very racist. Violence against women is a reality all over the world, it is not just our problem as Roma people. But the police and child protection don’t want to get involved, they say “They are gypsies this is their culture.” No, it’s not our culture. The practice comes from the time of Roma slavery and we all should fight against it.
KH: As a feminist, in what ways does the imperative to be political interfere with the artistic process? Do you ever want to do something that is not politically loaded?
MD: Actually, I think this is something that people misunderstand about political theatre. Our theatre is very artistic and very aesthetic. I define myself as a Roma actress. We are doing contemporary Roma theatre, about relevant contemporary things in our society. I’m interested in speak[ing] out about our identity in theatre as a Roma theatre organization, so we have our own voices as Roma actresses. We know that we reach a bigger audience if we are good performers and sort of experimental, and this is what concerns and defines us now and I think we’ve been increasing awareness of racism all over Europe.
KH: You’ve stated before that it is important that Roma people tell their own stories and create their own art. What do you feel are the major differences in the portrayal of Roma people in your art, for example, versus non-Roma-produced media?
MD: I think we as Roma—or the Roma characters that were used—and the discourse about Roma in the media, were always stereotypical. Always you can find in this discourse stereotypes of the Roma fortune teller, the Roma thief, the Roma beggar, all negative images of us. And we don’t want anymore to identify with these stereotypes, and this is why we felt we needed to create other images about us as Roma people. We wanted to teach people about our history in Europe. There is so much ignorance regarding the oppression that Roma people suffered as slaves, and in the Second World War in the Holocaust, and we have to penetrate mainstream theatre with these topics.
Our art is always so professional because we come from a distinct image that non-Roma people have about us, just stopping with the music. They think we are just musicians, flamenco dancers, and that’s all. Many times when we tell people that we have a theatre group of Roma actresses, it’s very funny because people do not associate this image of professionalism with the Romas. After the shows the non-Roma people among the audience come to us and they congratulate us and tell us “the show was fantastic and you should go to university to get a diploma because you are very talented,” and we stop and chuckle and tell them actually we got our diplomas many years ago. We are professional actors, so why do you think that we didn’t go to school and that everything that you just saw on the stage is just talent? No, it’s work. They think we are just talent, that we get on the stage and just do it and that’s it. No, it’s work and we work just like every other actor.
So this is our purpose, to create alternative images of Roma in Roma art of Roma people, and to fight against this negative representation in the public and the media about Roma. This is why in "Del Duma/Tell Them About Me" I tried to present four different Roma women in order to show that we are different, we are not a homogeneous group, and that we are very different to how people think about us and the clichés. One of the misinformations about us is that our women are all submissive and the gender roles are very inflexible. So, we are presenting four different Roma families. We want to speak out about different women—maybe lesbian, transgender Roma women, educated Roma women—and all of the issues that Roma women from the traditional communities are fighting against because I’ve met a lot of Roma feminist women in traditional communities, and of course they don’t have the word feminism, but they are fighting oppression. I learn a lot from these women and the movements they have created.
KH: It has been postulated that increasing the education of Roma people is perhaps the best way to help improve the quality of life for Roma people. Do you agree?
MD: Yes, the education discourse is the most present discourse about Roma, and everyone says that Roma people should be integrated through education. But I think it is a very literal discourse that you will receive rights as a Roma when you are educated, and they don’t put it in context. In Romania, there is a lot of segregation in the schools against Roma children. They are always on the last bench, no one speaks to them. I really think [these are] crimes against humanity that are happening in many countries in Europe against Roma people. I’ve met a lot of Roma people who are in cities and have no passports, and everyone expects them to fight in order to get into the schools, but what I want to know is why should they have to fight for the right to go to school? So, I think that yes education will improve the lives of Roma, but I think people should really speak about the inaccess[ability] for Roma people to the schools. It is a state problem, it is not just a problem of the Roma. The state has the responsibility to provide equal education for all of the children.
KH: What do you want people in the U.S. to take away from your upcoming show at the PEN World Voices Festival?
MD: Well, in the last year, I went for the first time to the U.S., to New York, when I was nominated for the League of Professional Theatre Women International Theatre Award. It was very interesting to find out about the situation of the Roma people in the U.S. in comparison with Europe, [where] we are very visible as Roma people. In the U.S., Roma people aren’t visible, and there is a lot of ignorance regarding who the Roma people are because there are so many minorities and [such] diversity in the U.S. that the Roma have no voice. This is why I chose to present "Del Duma" at the festival because it is the first play that I wrote and it is really introducing you the Roma people; who are the Roma? What is the difference between the Roma and Romanians? There is always this confusion that Roma people are Romanians, but no, we are two different people and there [are] no similar roots between us. Roma people are living all over Europe and one of the countries where Roma are is Romania. It is just a confusion between the terms and there is no relation.
"Del Duma" is really introducing you to this topic and it is like an introductory guide to Roma people, the different experiences of Roma women and our issues. What I want people to take away from it is for people to learn about us; who we are and the realities that we have come from. We were slaves for five centuries, and in the U.S. there was black slavery, and I’m really inspired by black feminism or black issues in many ways, and it’s very interesting that black people don’t know about us. We are really inspired by them, the Black Panthers and Civil Rights movement, and I’d really like to find that solidarity and for Roma people to also have a voice in the U.S. I really want the audience that comes to the festival to find out about this mass discriminated minority in Europe that is the Roma.
You can see a stage reading of "Del Duma" on Monday April 16th at the Segal Theatre as a part of the PEN World Voices Festival.
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