Theatre director Pavla Dombrovska has long been fascinated by Romany culture; inspired by the vigorous, joyful and often tragic tone of Gypsy music, and enthralled by this people's storytelling tradition. So she set out to adapt for the theatre a collection of Romany folktales: they were compiled - or rather, lovingly transcribed - by the noted scholar Dr Milena Hubschmannova, in the '60s and early '70s. But the play got off to a difficult start: Dombrovska was shocked to find how little she really understood of these "naïve" fairytales, and how opposed Dr Hubschmannova was to the project.
"I really appreciate Roma culture — I love their energy — and I wanted to do a play with a Roma theme or based on a Roma story, as we also often play for children in orphanages, where there are a lot of Roma kids. A lot of these children, I noticed, think that being a Rom is a bad thing; it seemed like nobody was encouraging them to be proud of their origin," said Pavla Dombrovska.
"Later, I also read a book — a collection of Roma folk tales compiled by Milena Hubschmannova — a book full of authentic stories told by Roma storytellers. They're amazing - they're not edited as literature; the people who were recounting them had been telling these stories for years, and had been passed down for generations. And this inspired me to show it on stage."
The Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 brought an end to the Prague Spring, reforms led by communist party secretary Alexander Dubcek he hoped with introduce "socialism with a human face." With the hard-line Communists putting aside their attempts to assimilate the Roma to focus on crushing the dissident movement, this tragic and difficult time saw the first-ever publication of literature written in Romani.
It was around that time that Dr Hubschmannova, who died in a traffic accident last autumn while at a conference abroad, began preparing the Romany stories she'd collected for publication. Romske pohadky (Romany fairytales) came out in in 1973. In an interview with Radio Prague, she recalled that flowering of Romany literature in the Czech lands.
"Well, Romany literature is very young. It really started to be created about thirty years ago in 1969/1970 when the first Union of Roma was founded. They published a journal, 'Romano L'il', and I would say that for the first time in history the Roma started to write in Romani, and also their things were published in this journal. And then again this "normalizace" ["normalization" - the period that followed the Soviet-led invasion of 1968] came back and a policy of assimilation. Again Romani was not allowed to be publicly spoken, published, used, and so again it stopped," Dr Hubschmannova told Radio Prague.
She had studied Hindi, Urdu and Bengali in Prague and in the early 1950s became increasingly interested in the Romany language, which also has its roots in India. She had great difficulties with the regime in the hard-line 1970s as she strongly opposed official attempts to force Roma to assimilate.
But Milena Hubschmannova played a huge role in reviving and recording the Romany language in Czechoslovakia, and in encouraging Roma people to publish their stories. As such, she was fiercely protective of the culture.
Theatre director Pavla Dombrovska again.
"I met with Milena Hubschmannova before I started to work on the play, and I was surprised by her reaction because I expected she'd be very happy that we wanted to do something like that. But she was actually horrified and tried to discourage me. After a while, she admitted that she didn't believe that we, as 'Gadze,' non-Roma, were capable of fully understanding the stories."
Dr Hubschmannova refused, at first, to give her blessing to the adaptation or collaborate on it in any way, as previous experience had shown that the majority white Czech population had completely misinterpreted the stories as naïve fairytales. But Romany tales are seldom straightforward tales of good versus evil; "paramisa," as they are called in Romani, are often fantastic, heroic tales told by masters of the art more for the entertainment of adults than children — and for the passing on of collective history, wisdom, and advice. Unlike in Czech fairytales, there are seldom picture-perfect happy endings.
"So she [ Dr Hubschmannova] sat in on some readings of her book [Romske pohadky] and explained how what a Gadze considers funny, very entertaining, well, a Rom might sense something deeper in the episode in the context of the Romany experience. And coming from her, that was a real hard kick for me, but at the same time very useful, and I started looking at the tales differently."
"At that moment, I decided to involve more Roma so that such misinterpretations wouldn't happen. And really there are many aspects to the stories that may at first glance seem like pure mischief or a simple joke, yet contain deeper meanings. So I tried to get below the surface of the jokes and get across the serious undercurrent that might be in the text."
The result, after over a year of more serious study, and working with Romany musicians, dancers, singers and first-time actors — and with Dr Hubschmannova's blessing — was "Chytry hloupy Rom," or the "The Clever Stupid Rom." Pavla Dombrovska's play, which is based on two tales ("How a Rom Went for the Apple of Youth" and "How the Rom Got the Witch's Girl") and borrows from others in the compilation, was first performed in September and had its premiere in Prague this past weekend.
It's the story of a Romany boy who turned out badly, so "there was nothing to be done but to put him to school." Once there, he excels, falls in love with a princess, encounters witches and dragons, outfoxes them all with the help of a magic horse, but is killed when rescuing a damsel in distress.
"I was dancing with the [Roma organisation] Drom, in the ensemble Cerchena, Pavla [Dombrovska] came there to the group and asked us if we'd like to play with them. I thought: Why not give it a try? So I did, and enjoyed it, and I'm really very happy that I'm here...."
"As long as I live, I would like to act."
Without giving away too much of the plot, the "clever stupid Rom" is revived by another witch, and beds her daughter, whom he eventually marries, once the king gives him a construction permit to build a house of his own. A simple tale well told — and sung — whose deeper meaning for the Roma audience can not be explained in the time we now have together, but which clearly also struck a chord with the cast.
Singer (and nurse) Ivana Vilhemova, aged 22, was the leading lady. She learned of the production from a friend with whom she has sung with at memorial events for Romany victims of the Holocaust.
"This is the first time I learned about traditional Roma tales. In our home, we don't speak in Romanes, [the Romani language], so I don't remember my grandma telling me any Roma stories — I knew only the traditional Czech or Moravian ones. So I'm glad I can get to know some now — thanks to Milena Hubschmannova, who spent a big part of her life visiting Roma families and collecting these beautiful stories."
"The play inspired me, but I don't read fairytales in my free time, for one, and if I did, I'd want to read them in the traditional Romani language, as they should be told. That doesn't mean I don't what to learn Romanes [Romani] — I do! I need to, also for singing."
Vilhemova (singing, especially for Radio Prague):
"Wait, my wild little mare,
wait, sweet girl, wait;
You're still very young,
and haven't been loved.
But I'll teach you to love,
and teach you to dance,
and to sleep beneath the open sky.
A poor Gypsy, I am - don't want money, nor a home.
A poor Gypsy, I am - don't want money, nor a home."
"And so on!" [laughs]
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