Theatre has borrowed many of these violent perceptions and has contributed to the reinforcement of stereotypes about Roma, constructing and disseminating negative typologies and archetypes of Romani characters such as the fortune-teller, the thief, and the criminal, as well as romanticized characters like the passionate or rebellious “Gypsy.” These dehumanizing caricatures have been assimilated in public discourse, paving the way for both the rampant cultural appropriation of Romani culture today and the anti-Roma sentiment that has historically plagued European society and continues to rear its ugly head.
As a founding member of the Roma Actor’s Association and Giuvlipen, an independent Roma feminist theatre company based in Romania, I work with fellow artists towards the construction of a full Roma cultural identity while also seeking to dismantle widespread stereotypes.
Despite the fact that Romania has the most developed network of minority theatres in Europe—the country is host to nine Hungarian state theatres, two German ones, and one Jewish one—no theatre space exists for Roma minority, the country’s second largest minority. (Unofficially, Roma are, in fact, Romania’s largest ethnic minority, but, given the deeply seated stigma surrounding Roma identity and thus the shame of self-declaration, these statistics are skewed.) One would think that the long history of Romani persecution in Romania—five centuries of slavery and eleven thousand Roma who perished in the Holocaust—would render the establishment of a Roma theatre a moral obligation of the state.
However, when the Roma Actor’s Association approached cultural authorities to help establish a Roma state theatre, the responses we received time after time were offensive against Roma; they intoned inaccurate stereotypes, arguing that we don’t have a theatrical tradition. But, contrary to widely accepted and false notions that Romani have not cultivated a tradition of theatre art, new research by theatre director Mihai Lukacs shows that Roma slaves laid the foundations of early modern theatre in the Romanian Principalities:
Once the jesters were integrated into the history of Romanian theatre, their ethnicity and lowly slave status were forgotten, thereby denying the symbolic importance of Roma participation in the construction of a national culture. The rediscovery of Roma jesters is a gesture of recognition of Roma theatrical tradition, which preceded that of Romanian theatre and deeply influenced it.
The forgotten tradition of the Roma slave jesters, who for three hundred years were the only performers of the epoch, shows us how their early contribution in the building of a Romanian national culture was erased. Moreover, we learn from Lukacs’ research how the compositions and texts of jesters and lautari (Romani musicians) were the “intellectual property” of the lords who owned them. Therefore, the creations of the Romani cultural slaves were automatically transferred to their owners, meaning Roma themselves received no credit for their artistic work.
Theatre has contributed to the reinforcement of stereotypes about Roma, constructing and disseminating negative typologies and archetypes of Romani characters such as the fortune-teller, the thief, and the criminal, as well as romanticized characters like the passionate or rebellious “Gypsy.”
Historical events, such as the deportations of Roma to Transnistria under the fascist regime of the Romanian government during the Second World War, thwarted Roma theatre culture, which included troupes, puppetry, and circus arts. In the period that followed the Romani Holocaust, Roma artistic production was completely absent from Romanian theatre, yet examples of Romani cultural appropriation proliferated. The most significant example is the socialist play Rhapsody of the Gypsies by Mircea Ștefănescu, which premiered in 1957 and takes place during the period of Roma slavery. Despite being performed with the accompaniment of a band of Roma musicians, the Romani characters were performed by non-Roma actors.
It wasn’t until 2010 that the long period of invisibility of Roma in theatre came to an end with the appearance of the first Romani theatre production in contemporary Romania. The play, Jekh răt lisăme (A Stormy Night), was an adaptation of a story by the illustrious Romanian playwright, I. L. Caragiale, translated into Romanes (the Romani language) by Romani actor Sorin Sandu, directed by him and another Romani actor, Rudy Moca, and performed and disseminated by professional actors who assumed their Roma ethnicity: Marcel Costea, Zita Moldovan, Sorin-Aurel Sandu, Madalin Mandin, Dragoş Dumitru. Although the show enjoyed immediate success, the reaction from the public wasn’t free from hateful public opinions; some considered it offensive that a play written by Caragiale, a symbol of Romanian national culture, was performed in the Romani language and “appropriated” by a team of Roma artists.