A Playwright Who Provokes Change
Jeton Neziraj, playwright and provocateur from Kosovo, is a person with a mission: freedom from xenophobia—for himself, his country, and the world.
Neziraj runs Qendra Multimedia, an experimental theatre company that stages many first productions of his plays and sponsors arts festivals in Pristina, Kosovo’s capital city, with his wife and frequent director, Blerta Rrustemi-Neziraj. His twenty-five plays, including the farce One Flew Over the Kosovo Theater—just published in the eponymous anthology of plays from Kosovo—is about corruption in their new government; the satiric The Demolition of the Eiffel Tower is about the rise of Islamophobia in France. Many of his plays have caused provocations and have had to have a police presence to even open in Kosovo, but most have had real impact by broadening the discourse and changing minds. His recent 55 Shades of Gay, a play about gay life in the deeply homophobic Balkans—a place still dominated by an ancient, heroic-patriarchal cultural mythos—just had a two week run at La MaMa, the first full production in the United States for the prolific playwright, who is considered to be among the finest working now in southern Europe. The performance was livestreamed on HowlRoundTV, and you can watch the full archival video.
We met in Pristina in the summer of 2011, when Jeton produced the first workshop of my play Another Life, a satire about the United States’ torture program; the Kosovar actors immediately understood this very American play because they all had torture stories from their wars. Now, we sat together in the La MaMa lobby and spoke about freedom and theatre’s role in bringing it about. I was reminded of a Cold War joke that articulates our different positions as political playwrights in our own cultures: Two dogs are speaking across the Berlin Wall. The dog in the East says, “It’s really terrible here; I can’t even bark.” The dog in the West replies: “I can bark all I want, but no one listens.”
Karen: Kosovo achieved independence in 2008 after the final bloody war of ethnic cleansing that marked the breakup of the former Yugoslavia. Your work has been described as acts of “literary reconciliation,” can you explain this?
Jeton: After the war, the level of hatred was huge, in both Kosovo and Serbia. With other Kosovar intellectuals and artists, I became involved in several cultural projects. Somebody had to start that. We were the first to collaborate with Serbian artists on several collections of translations of fiction and drama between the two cultures and in coproducing and exchanging theatre work.
People saw this as if we were collaborating with enemy, but now, after ten years, our work is seen mostly as a pure cultural act. Still, there is no common sense of shared history of the past. In Kosovo, Albanians see themselves as the victims. In Serbia, Serbs see themselves as the victims. Of course, with Serbian intellectuals, you can discuss any matter related to the war and they are open and aware of the crimes that the Serbian military forces have committed in Kosovo, but the majority of the population on both sides does not want to enter into this dialogue.
But, if everybody is a victim, then who was the one to commit crimes? Responsibility and confrontation imply recognition of what happened. This is intellectual responsibility, and this is the contribution of intellectuals for reconciliation.
Karen: Where were you during the war?
Jeton: I was young, still a student, and I sometimes wrote speeches for the local commander of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) in my hometown. Some war propaganda. I wasn’t exactly in the army—I wasn’t doing the fighting, but I was working with the fighters. It felt safer to be with them.
I was also often thinking of my Serbian elementary school teacher Bora and asking myself: Would I be able to kill him if I met him? Would Bora be able to kill me? The answer in both cases was “No!” So, focusing on this bit of “humanity” in that period of total dehumanization helped me easily connect to the cultural dialogue with Serbian artists after the war.
When it was over, I was writing plays about war and I believed that I was helping myself, healing my own traumas, but also, in a way, documenting the war and making some sort of war chronicle. But my writing at that time was characterized with pathos, with the inability to see the war with more colors than just black and white.
When that happens, you come to a situation where you know what you are writing is not what you would want to write, but on the other hand you have no force, no capacity to write differently, to see things from another perspective. I worked hard in order to change how I wrote. It was like coming to see your drama as somebody else’s drama. I escaped with a lot of effort into a new way of writing.
This was important for me because then I was free as a writer. Then I was not only fighting the other demons, the demons of “the enemy,” but my own demons as well. I was fighting for my own personal freedom, but also for the freedom on the stage. I wanted to be able to write what I wanted to write and have it seen by an audience.
My play One Flew Over the Kosovo Theatre was cancelled by the government. A minister of culture intervened and called off the production.
We couldn’t allow the actors’ faces to be seen clearly on the poster. Because yes, we were afraid.
Karen: That play is a comedy about a group of theatre artists commissioned to create a piece of entertainment to celebrate the independence of Kosovo, but over the course of their rehearsals they unmask the enormous corruption within the new government.
Jeton: Yes. At the beginning of our rehearsals, we sent out “fake” press releases saying we had the full support of the government to produce the play about Kosovo announcing its independence. These releases were published and people said, “You are working with the government?” But the play was actually critiquing the government and the press releases we sent were meant as some sort of public interventions. One said that the only five copies of the play had been stolen, but the actors had already learned their lines, so we could continue. It also said that we suspected Serbian spies or the Russian KGB were trying to prevent the play.
The Kosovo government did not believe this, of course, but closer to the premiere they desperately wanted to cancel the play. In the end, we did it, but it was a fight. Ambassadors to Kosovo from Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, who were our supporters, told us that we must not give up. They urged us and supported us as we fought to do the play.
People also said the play was funded by Serbian money and it was an “anti-national” play. Later, when we toured the same play in Serbia, the Serbs said it was a provocation because they did not recognize Kosovo as an independent country. In Serbia, as in Kosovo, we had to often invite the police to protect the theatre during the performances.
Karen: Before I went to Sarajevo in 1996, just as the siege was being lifted, I was told “there are no gay people in the Balkans.” But, of course, many of the professors who had taught at the Drama Academy all through the city’s four-year siege and who I worked with were gay. Does gay life remain underground in the Balkans? Were you afraid to open 55 Shades?
Jeton: We couldn’t allow the actors’ faces to be seen clearly on the poster. Because yes, we were afraid. 55 Shades of Gay premiered in 2017 at the National Theatre in Pristina. We worked with the underground gay community. We had people reading the play and commenting, and we had really good support from the gay community, but we were worried about what to expect.
For the premiere, we invited the police to guard the theatre. Five years earlier, an exhibit of gay art in Pristina was attacked and destroyed, and the people at the exhibit were also attacked. But our huge poster for our show hung in front of the National Theatre for about two weeks and nothing happened to it. Fortunately, the play opened without incident, and this was a truly wonderful surprise—indeed a triumph, a sign that Kosovar society was emancipating itself.
Of course, we received death threats and hate comments on social media, but we never took them seriously. This way of threatening and intimidating us has become routine. It depends on the show, but we are sometimes called “traitors” or “anti-nationals” or “pro-Serbs,” and other times “faggots” or “immoral people who should be burned in hell.”
About one month after the premiere, the first-ever gay parade took place in Kosovo. I don’t mean to suggest that this was a direct result of the play, but the organizers did tell us that they had been encouraged and motivated by it, in particular by the fact that it had run without incident. They took that as a sign that Kosovar society had become more tolerant.
But just recently we were shocked to see that among those who spread hate speech and make death threats was an official from the Ministry of Justice, who called for a direct murder of the 55 Shades of Gay team. We reported this incident publicly to the police and prosecutor.
Karen: There is a story in the play about the police, in which a gay person is arrested and slapped around by one police officer while another one gives him his card and suggests an assignation.
Jeton: Yes, that is a true story.
Karen: So is the story that runs through the play about a gay couple applying for a marriage license and the outrage that causes among the mayor and other officials in the town. You make the point that the Kosovo constitution promises that any couple can apply for a marriage license, but when a gay couple applied, they were thwarted by local officials and public outcry.
Jeton: The initial impulse to write this play came to me few years ago. Kosovars exploded on social media when a newspaper announced, somewhat pompously, “The first-ever marriage application from a gay couple in Kosovo.”
Karen: In your play, one half of the couple is an Italian businessman who is opening a condom factory to supply good jobs for the people of the provincial town and he falls in love with a local. At the end of the play they manage to marry, and there is a bacchanalian scene in which the actors dance and sing, costumed as in a satyr play with exaggerated sexual organs. At the end of the bacchanal, a grenade in the cake explodes and kills the gay Kosovar. That seems to me to be a very bitter ironic event.
Jeton: It is, but that was the natural end of this play. However, although the Kosovar gay, Merlin, gets killed, in the following scene we see him alive, telling his own life story. I wanted to soften a bit the bitterness that we might feel when Merlin is killed. When it played in Kosovo, we often saw audience members leave the show crying. These were probably individuals who had to go through tough times themselves in their fight for survival and for dignity. I do not think the play is pessimistic, even with a sort of tragic end. I wanted the form of the play to be ironic, just as the content is. The end is very open and the audience is free to choose whichever ending they want: that Merlin died, or that he lived, or that he never existed…
I do not ask permission from anyone and I do not think that anyone owns issues or has the copyright on any topic.
Karen: What is it like bringing this play to New York, an epicenter of gay activism?
Jeton: In Europe, everyone knows the history of the ethnic cleansing of Albanians from Kosovo and the breakup of the former Yugoslavia. Everyone also knows something of Balkan culture. So, when we perform our work there, we do not have to carry on our shoulders the social and political context as some sort of a footnote to the play. Performing in New York is a challenge for us, because we do not know how open the audience is and how different our play is from what they are used to seeing.
The play is originally in Albanian. The actors had to learn it in English, which meant adapting to a new language rhythm. This is not an easy task, especially for the actors who do not speak English at all or who speak what we call “globish” English.
Karen: You’ve been described by a critic as being “on the way to creating your own ‘Neziresque’ universe.” What is your unique universe like?
Jeton: I see a topic that interests me and I think: I have to tell this story. I do not ask permission from anyone and I do not think that anyone owns issues or has the copyright on any topic. I research the things I don’t know well. I know my limits. The type of theatre I create is mostly about the politics around things. I am interested in the masters behind the puppets.
I focus my plays on the ideas. I am not into creating “strong” characters or a strong storyline. The content is told in a structure that often looks as if, metaphorically speaking, a bomb has fallen into it. Pieces and bits of content here and there, covered in dust and fog. People have described this type of theatre as Brechtian, but I am more inspired by Kafka, Gabriel García Márquez, Ismail Kadare, Dino Buzzati, and Ionesco, too.
One Flew Over the Kosovo Theater is the play of mine I like most. We had problems when it premiered in Kosovo, but the same thing happened when it was produced in Istanbul: it was censored by the state and the director of the Turkish State Theatre resigned in protest. When the new director was appointed, everyone thought the play would not be allowed to continue, but the new director said it must go on and it became a hit.
To do the work we do, you have to be either too brave or too stupid. I am not sure which category I belong in. My play Border Balkan, which is based on The Oresteia—where Agamemnon comes homes from the war as a war criminal and gets killed by his wife—led to lots of debates. Two actors left within the first weeks of rehearsal. One believed Agamemnon was a Serbian war commandeer but, in rehearsal, he realized Agamemnon was, most likely, an Albanian rapist. The second actor left the production for religious reasons; Clytemnestra wears a burka when she kills Agamemnon.
The day before the premiere, a group of war veterans entered the National Theatre of Kosovo and asked us to stop the play. According to them, it denigrated our war and war values. They also made death threats to me. The premiere was held under strong police presence inside and outside the theatre. And the play has produced lots of debate. It confronted the public with several of the challenging problems and topics in Kosovo’s post-war society: war crimes, the installment of a mindset of violence, the killing of political opponents, blackmailing and corruption in public governance, occupation of public property and ruining of everything public for personal gain. All of it in the name of victory.
Doing this work, you are helping create the identity of a new country. If you try to build understanding with your work and be critical, you will have an impact.
Crisis is a permanent state of this world, and human beings will find a solution to every crisis. I was running a college workshop here and the students said the most important issue is climate change. I wanted them to work on xenophobia, which to me is the most important issue, and because I was in charge, I pushed that.
Karen: The two issues are not separate because who suffers first and hardest from climate change? The poor, those in the global south, the climate refugees who become stateless and hated. However, Kosovo has done little to contribute to climate change while the United States has done a gigantic amount. Students here are waking up to the climate emergency. They realize they are the first generation whose lives are going to be massively impacted, and they are wondering what sort of art to make and what sort of actions to take in the face of this crisis.
Jeton: In Kosovo, the most important issue is freedom. If you have freedom to act you will solve many other problems. If you have freedom on stage, you will also have freedom off stage. I want to be able to do the work I do freely without fear. Things are changing. 55 Shades would not have been possible ten years ago, but it became possible two years ago.