jakub | August 25, 2023

AMERICAN THEATRE | Hope for Mama and the Rest of Us

The indomitable Olga Denisova, born under the bombing of Kyiv on July 7, 1941. (Photo courtesy of playwright Sasha Denisova)

As a Russian-born stage director living and working in the U.S., and of course thinking about my home country’s war on Ukraine, it made sense for me to dig into the topic through a play. Since the first day of Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in early 2022, I have been on a search for the right play. I finally found it.

Director Yury Urnov.

But I was plagued by doubt. Why make a theatre production about war? Does a communal gathering with a few people performing in front of others even make sense while other people are dying? What can it change? While weapons, news, and money do their job, what job can art do? How can it help?

At best, theatre can turn the echo of this war into a more personal experience—first for artists and later for audiences. But then what? Will God descend from the skies and make Putin bring his armies back home?

Well, now this is becoming too much of a spoiler about the play I’m currently obsessed with and am directing twice in the coming season. It’s called My Mama and the Full-Scale Invasion, and it’s written by a Ukrainian playwright, Sasha Denisova. It opens at Washington, D.C.’s Woolly Mammoth Theatre in mid-September and at the Wilma Theater in Philadelphia, where I’m co-artistic director, in January.

Playwright Sasha Denisova. (Photo by Ira Polyarnaya)

I owe a great deal of credit to the Center for International Theater Development (CITD) and its director Philip Arnoult for my ability to keep telling stories. If not for their support, I’d never have had the chance to continue making theatre after immigration. Sasha herself fled to Poland as a refugee at the onset of the war and started making theatre there. She is a graduate of the Philology Department of Kiev Taras Shevchenko University and has worked and studied at various companies in Russia, including the Mayakovsky Theater, Theater.doc, the Moscow Art Theatre School, the Meyerhold Center, and the Moscow School of New Cinema. Her play Light My Fire was awarded the Golden Mask in 2012. The U.S. premiere of her site-specific phantasmagoria, The Gaaga (The Hague), developed through first person interviews with refugees and officials, and inspired by world events, was produced by Arlekin Players Theatre in June. She has written two other plays about the war: Six Ribs of Anger and Bakhmut.

Robert Walsh and Sands Garrett in Arlekin Players Theatre’s production of “The Gaaga,” staged at Beat Brew Hall, June 2023.

My Mama and the Full-Scale Invasion is inspired by Sasha’s real-life mom, who at 82 decided to stay in Kyiv despite the bombings, because, as she put it, “How would I manage on those buses with my aching bones?” And: “My kitchen is here, I’m about to make stuffed peppers,” and, “Putin has not abandoned the idea of attacking Kyiv. How could I leave everything?”

Sasha and her mom communicate primarily through WhatsApp messages. At some point Sasha decided that her mom’s writing told the story of the war better than the news reports.

But Sasha’s play is not a straight transcript of her chats with her mom. On page one, the playwright introduces the “I imagine” instrument and keeps using it throughout: Sasha imagines Mama addressing the nation and flying bombers, meeting with aliens and gods, and regularly chatting on the phone with President Zelensky. “Hello, Vladimir Aleksandrovich, Olga Ivanovna here,” she says. “No, nothing’s the matter, but I happen to be flying over the Red Square, so I thought I’d call. Vladimir Aleksandrovich, will you give the order to destroy?”

I’m pretty sure neither Vladimir Aleksandrovich nor Olga Ivanovna in real life have time to spare on calls like the one above. But this spring, while I was watching documentary footage of the drone attacking the Kremlin on the news, I somehow knew that it was her—it was Sasha’s mom.

I was born in Moscow and lived there until 2009. I never thought a drone crashing into the Kremlin could feel right, or that I’d wish my native country a loss in the war. I do now. And I hope such a loss can lead to Russians comprehending the depth of the moral catastrophe they find themselves in—and to a desire to climb out of it. I fail to imagine other positive scenarios.

The first thing I thought after reading Sasha’s play is that her mom is everything Putin underestimated when planning his full-scale war with Ukraine. She survived Hitler’s invasion, so she won’t be easily scared away by another crazed fuckhead. And her ability to adapt to dire circumstances was rigorously nurtured by decades of life under Soviets. Most importantly, her kitchen belongs in Kyiv, her life belongs in Ukraine, and she’s not giving these things away without resistance.

This ability—of the mom in the play and of the real one in Ukraine—to not surrender, to resist, is an empowering thing to witness. Hope is material, right? It changes something; it creates the potential for miracles. Didn’t it feel like a miracle when Putin wasn’t able to take over Kyiv in three days, as he anticipated, and was instead thrown back by Ukrainian resistance? Doesn’t it feel like we need more miracles and a lot of hope for Ukraine to end this war with a decisive victory? 

To build this hope, playwright Sasha Denisova is sacrificing a lot. She puts her relationships with her mother, her childhood, and her grown-up fears on display with brutal honesty and bitter, explosive humor. For the oppressed and besieged, humor is a tool to resist fear, to not give up. Humor is so core to Mama, in fact, that it often feels like a stand-up act performed amidst the trenches.

Ukraine’s fight for victory feels like reaching for something impossible. (What would it take for Abel to kick Cain off his farm?) So does the play. The play succeeds in its reach, as I hope Ukraine will. Sasha manages to find reasons for optimism amid the horrors of war, and—with help of her magic hyperboles—turns a record of her electronic correspondence with her mom into a poetic, absurdist piece of art.

Now and here, in the U.S., I feel the way the Ukrainian war has become less urgent and more distant for Americans. I know it’s been 18 months. I understand there are many other horrible things happening around the world demanding attention and resources. And I don’t know how to prove what I feel—this attack on Ukraine puts the entire world on the edge of survival. So I’ll end with some words of wisdom from Mama’s address to the nation: 

“The enemy’s success or failure rests on our resourcefulness. One woman shot down a drone with a jar of pickles in the Goloseevsky District. Stay the Course. Glory to Ukraine. Glory to the heroes. Plug your windows with soft foam. Sleep by load-bearing walls.”

P.S. By the way, Sasha never told her mom, let alone asked her, about putting her in the play. She is considering breaking the news to her after we open the show. We’re not sure whether we should expect a cease-and-desist WhatsApp message on opening night. Or quite possibly a drone?

Yury Urnov (he/him) is co-artistic director of the Wilma Theater in Philadelphia. Born in Moscow, Yury graduated from the Russian Academy of Theater Art (GITIS) in 2000 with an MFA and since then has directed over 40 productions in his home country, Europe, and Africa, as well as translated several plays into Russian and English. Yury also serves as an associate director of the Center for International Theater Development in Baltimore.

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