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  • Writer's pictureBalkan Art Scene

Balkan Bordello: On the road with the Great Jones Repertory Company

In November, a group of Kosovar, Serbian and American actors set out on a tour of the Balkans with a modern reworking of a Greek tragedy. Natasha Tripney joined them on the road.

“What a way to make a living.”

Dolly Parton’s Nine to Five is playing over the speakers as our minibus winds its way through the outskirts of Prishtina. One by one the passengers – all members of New York’s Great Jones Repertory Company – join in as the driver negotiates the evening streets, heading towards the heart of the city. The Great Jones company have come to Kosovo from the LaMaMa Experimental Theatre Club – founded in the 1961 by the legendary Ellen Stewart – to perform Balkan Bordello, a fevered reimagining of the Oresteia by Kosovar playwright Jeton Neziraj.

As part of an ambitious international co-production between LaMaMa, Kosovo’s Qendra Multimedia, Serbia’s Atelje 212 and My Balkans, also based in New York, the US performers – Onni Johnson, George Drance, Eugene the Poogene, Valois Mickens, John Maria Gutierrez, Mattie Barber-Bockelman, and Matt Nasser – are part of a larger company that includes the Kosovar actor Verona Koxha and the Serbian actors Ivan Mihailović and Svetozar Cvetković and, over the past week, they have visited five cities: Prishtina, Gjilan, Ferizaj, Tirana, and Belgrade. Each night they’ve performed in a new theatre and had to negotiate a new stage. The company has spent a lot of time on buses, eating tangerines and salty Balkan snacks as the GPS sent them on scenic, if unintentional, detours through southern Serbia. They’re heading back to Prishtina for two more nights after which they will return to New York. In April 2022, the show will play a further 10 nights in La MaMa.

For many of the LaMaMan company members, this is not their first experience of performing in the Balkans. Stewart toured work all over the world, including the former Yugoslavia. The Great Jones Rep – named for Great Jones Street, where La MaMa’s rehearsal building is located – was formed in 1972 Stewart with the director Andrei Sherban and the composer Elizabeth Swados, to support their work, though as Johnson explains, it was not a rep company in the traditional sense. “It’s more of a collective.” The word that most often comes up when, however, when talking to the actors about it, is “family.” LaMaMa’s landmark work of the 1970s, created by Serban and Swados, was Fragments of a Tragedy: versions of Medea, Electra and, finally, the Trojan Women, created using a text based on ancient languages. Initially they used ancient Greek, but by the time they reached the Trojan Women, they were using a mix of ancient languages and invented sounds designed to un-anchor the play in time and place, and in doing so, to create something universal. “Because the language doesn’t belong to anybody, there’s no alienation that comes from not understanding,” says Johnson. This last piece, The Trojan Women, has become a signature show of LaMaMa, staged in more than 30 countries around the world. Johnson and Mickens were part of the original cast of The Trojan Women and performed it at Belgrade’s BITEF festival in 1975.

Onni Johnson in Balkan Bordello. Photo: Ferdi Limani

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