Thursday 24 March 2016 was International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. To recognise this and mark the start of a new initiative backed by the Romanian Cultural Institute (RCI), Alina Șerban gave a performance of her one-woman show I Declare at My Own Risk – an autobiographical account of Șerban’s personal journey from a ‘gypsy ghetto’ in Bucharest, via the Romanian social assistance system and, ultimately, to New York and London to pursue her education. The RCI’s new initiative supports artists like Șerban and director Jamie Harper by offering them the space and support to develop and then showcase their talent and work. Thursday’s scratch performance was, in Șerban’s own words, a ‘laboratory experiment’ that will feed into the further development of her powerful play.
As a laboratory experiment the performance at RCI was partially successful – the elements that made it work were Șerban herself (an actor of volcanic energy and joy), the simple set – comprising a screen and projections – and an ingenious soundtrack that accompanied Șerban’s words. But where some of the experiment fell down was in the arc of the narrative: the story seemed to start when Șerban was in adulthood then skipped back to childhood, and was hard to follow in places. But the actress’s energy and momentum kept it going.
The RCI has a wonderfully tiny stage – just about room for a one-woman performance – and Șerban filled it: she was wonderful to watch and held the audience spellbound. But hers is also a story about the redemptive force of self-expression, and is handled with great wit and compassion. From the start she exposes the prejudices and social discrimination she faced as a member of the Roma community – the opening soundtrack was a melee of gypsy music and disembodied voices saying things like “I love My Big Fat Greek Wedding!” and “Can you read my palm?” – immediately exposing the assumptions and myths that abound when the word ‘gypsy’ is used. Șerban recounts how when she first moved into the gypsy yard she herself was wary of the other Roma children and their bare feet. But by the time she makes friends with a girl who lives in the town she herself has become a gypsy child and learned that she’s now not like everyone else: sheepishly admitting in conversation where she lives, her shame is punctured by her friend’s joyful yelp of ‘COOL!’
Works like Șerban’s not only bring prejudices to the fore, but provide a new language for those of us – probably the majority of us – who have unwittingly consumed and reproduce these myths and prejudices about the Roma community – and help us to see the Roma community not as ‘other’ but as us.
Alina Șerban has received much critical acclaim for I Declare at My Own Risk and has performed it across Europe in Romania, Hungary, Italy and France. In the UK, the play was performed at the RADA Festival in 2013, while Șerban and Harper subsequently had an opportunity for further research and development of the piece during a residency at Turner Contemporary in Margate. Hobo Theatre Company will present a full production of the play in autumn 2016 – and it’s well worth looking out for.
Alina Șerban’s I Declare at My Own Risk, supported by Tara Arts and the Arts Council England, was staged as part on the ongoing cultural programme at the Romanian Cultural Institute, London.