In 2018, Andjelka Nikolić directed the premiere of a play by the ‘father of Serbian theatre’ Joakim Vujić. Duška Radosavljević Krojer explores why it took so long to bring it to the stage and the challenges of staging a play about race and colonialism in a modern Balkan context.
Two hundred years ago, in 1821, Joakim Vujić wrote a play called Negri, ili Ljubov ko sočelovekom svojim (The Blacks, or The Love Towards One’s Fellow Human). In 1821, Joakim Vujić, the man who would later become the ‘father of Serbian theatre’, had not yet visited Serbia. He had been born to Serbian parents in the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1772, and as a young man and student he already travelled to Budapest, Vienna, Trieste (where he worked as a teacher of Serbian), as well as the Crimea, the Middle East and north Africa (as a scribe on a ship).
An autobiography he would later write unusually combined travel writing with multilingual sections in Serbian, Latin, Italian, French, Hungarian, German and Hebrew. Intending to move to Serbia, in 1806 he settled as a teacher in a border town of Zemun where he was arrested on suspicions of an international plot against the Austrian authorities. He used his six months in prison to translate Daniel Dafoe’s Robinson Crusoe. A significant detour on Vujić’s way to the homeland of his ancestors happened when in 1813 he staged in a Budapest theatre the first play ever performed in the Serbian language – his translation of August von Kotzebue’s Der Papagei (1792).
Authored some eight years later, Negri was therefore one of the first plays written by a Serbian author, although one who belonged to an ethnic minority within an empire. The play takes place on an unnamed island off the American coast. Its main characters are an English Lord Stuford, the owner of a sugar factory in America, his servant Jon, the American sugar factory manager Barington, his official Blinert, and a family of slaves working in the sugar plantation: Ksantilakva, his son Nakir, daughter Suli, and Suli’s fiancé Kvirli. As Lord Stuford visits the sugar factory incognito to check the working conditions, Suli is sentenced to death by manager Barington for stealing a sugar reed to feed her exhausted brother Nakir. The play eventually reaches a morally just ending, though not without great suffering.
The premiere only took place in 2018, in the Serbian city of Kragujevac where, incidentally, in 1834 Vujić managed to set up the first Serbian theatre, a year after his arrival in Serbia. Knjaževsko-srpski teatar (the Prince’s Serbian theatre), founded by appointment from Prince Miloš Obrenović, was a token of Serbia’s gradual liberation from centuries-long Ottoman rule at the time.
Why did it take so long for this play to see the light of the stage?
According to director Andjelka Nikolić, it’s because the text has until now had more historical rather than dramaturgical value. She had read it by accident in an anthology as a fresher on her directing course at the Faculty of Dramatic Art in Belgrade, having taken a professor’s task a bit too seriously, but it stood out for her as an indication of Vujić’s surprisingly wide-ranging worldview.
‘Vujić clearly understood theatre as a place for exploration of the bigger questions of the world’, she notes. And his theatre practice was not yet subject to the codes of realism that would mark the 20th century theatre-making tradition in Serbia, which may have been a further limiting factor for a director potentially choosing to stage this play before now. Nikolić felt, however, that the play had new significance in the context of present day examinations of the legacies of colonialism and was interested to explore this.
The Serbian context itself additionally has different modes of colonial histories than those which marked the western European colonialisms. For a long time the Balkans have been exempt from the topics of race and racism, although this has started to change in recent years thanks to the work of mostly international scholars (such as Catherine Baker, Andreja Mesarič, Paul Stubbs, Bojana Videkanić), bringing critical race theory into the field of Balkan studies. Nikolić’s approach however was driven by different, more locally embedded questions, and the methodological concerns specific to theatre-making.
Like Joakim Vujić, Andjelka Nikolić is a theatre-maker with a philological and anthropological curiosity. Besides having trained as a director, Nikolić is also a French and Dutch graduate, a published translator, and a co-founder with psychologist/director Irena Ristić of a research-oriented participatory youth theatre Hop.la!, whose most recent mission was the decentralisation of Serbian cultural politics through setting up a children’s cultural centre in the Serbian village of Markovac. In a culture dominated by the institutional repertory theatre model, the independent scene is desperately underfunded and amounts to a labour of love. It is also an indication of Andjelka Nikolić’s understanding of theatre as ultimately a ‘place for thinking through what it means to be a community’.
It’s no surprise then that this director’s primary response to the challenges Vujić’s play was the aspect of language. Negri – translated as Crnci into contemporary Serbian – was written in Slavonic-Serbian, the literary language of the Serbs in the Habsburg Empire, hybridised from old Russian, church Slavonic and the Serbian vernacular, and in official use until it was reformed some decades later by Vuk Stefanović Karadžić in favour of the vernacular. One of the main initial creative tasks was deciding how to render the original into the present day Serbian so that it would be sufficiently accessible to a contemporary audience ‘increasingly alienated from the language of theatre via film, the internet and the fast media’. There were several aspects to this process of rendition – one was the dialogue, which the director worked on with the actors and voice consultant Dejan Sredojević collaboratively producing what would eventually become the subtitles that accompany the performance. Here she was interested in retaining the nuances of the original that no longer exist in the Serbian vernacular – for example the term ‘sočelovek’ from the title, meaning approximately ‘fellow human’ but having no elegant equivalent in contemporary Serbian, determined the decision to speak the original lines and provide the subtitles for clarity.
Nikolić notes that Vujić himself problematizes his own use of the term ‘Negri’ in a footnote to the text where he clarifies that up until then this word had been used in plain Serbian to denote only Arabs and that it is his intention instead to more appropriately now denote the natives of Guinea, the people unfairly traded by the English, Spanish, Dutch and other Europeans to America where they are forced into hard labour ‘for the rest of their lives’. Interestingly too, Vujić provides within one of the monologues ascribed to the factory manager Barington, very specific factual information that ‘between 1785 and 1787 the French transported 21,652 slaves in 65 galleys from Guinea to the Dominican Republic’, which he uses as a basis to calculate the financial gain for the traders in a damning portrayal of the exploitative hegemonies.
Nikolić characterises the genre of Vujić’s play as a melodrama which was the target of her creative team’s intervention in treating more convincingly the unrealistically generous representation of the English Lord Stuford, and bringing the text closer to a contemporary political context and to the Serbian audience. However, she also makes the intuitive decision to amplify this seemingly incidental tendency of the original to carry footnotes by adding a number of her own: about the etymology of Guinea (‘Gine nai mora’ – ‘we are all women’ a frightened response given, according to a legend, by a group of Guinean women to the French colonisers), about the question of England’s Europeanness after Brexit, and about the ongoing modern day manifestations of slavery and mistreatments of human rights sanctioned by the liberal democracies.
Contrary to her own training as a theatre director based on the principle of ‘show rather than tell’, Nikolić forges a hyper-explicit framework for the piece which transforms Vujić’s melodrama into a type of Brechtian lehrstück. Another useful methodological opportunity is found in the long sentimental monologues of the original coupled with the unusual advantage of the Kragujevac Theatre having a post of a resident composer, Dragoslav Tanasković, whose availability to be embedded in the rehearsal process with his musicological expertise and deep familiarity with the ensemble resulted in a number of original songs. It is no wonder that this piece was a hit at a number of festivals including the annual Joakim Vujić Festival of Serbian theatres outside of Belgrade. Suddenly Joakim Vujić, who otherwise only has a dusty symbolic presence in Serbian culture, was presented as a living author.
Unlike Nikolić’s participatory work in the independent sector, this piece belonging to the institutional theatre circuit, unfortunately offered little scope to engage in any dialogue with the audience, which might have been its only missed opportunity. I was particularly interested in what the audience would have made of the subtitles as in my own experience of watching I was aware of a process of reflection emerging from the gap between the language that is heard and its textual rendering.
The observed similarities and differences could raise questions in the audience about the translator’s reliability and this, in transpires, was a deliberate, playful and emancipatory strategy deployed by Nikolić who draws a parallel between her work as an official translator of French (where reliability is paramount) and her work as a theatre director which necessarily entails a degree of interpretive adaptation. She gleefully calls this aspect of her mediation between the text and the audience – ‘translational provocation’.
On a technical level, Nikolić says, the actors and herself deployed three registers in translating the text which ended up in the subtitles – the corporate language of business management, the language of the human rights, and the language of contemporary Serbian vernacular. And even though the ensemble were not unanimous from the outset as to the extent to which their process of interpretation of the original would become explicit in the final outcome, this sort of methodological exploration of the theatre-making process itself emerged as one of the significant results of the project that the director has taken further in her work.
Since Negri, Nikolić has tackled another forgotten Serbian classic Ajduci (Haidouks) by Jovan Sterija Popović in a similar way, and an African fairytale The Coconut Thieves, both made in 2021. Regarding her ongoing interest in colonialism, she has been developing over the last few years an approach to the African travelogues of the early twentieth century Serbian poet and diplomat, educated in France, Rastko Popović.
In this process she has been exploring a collaboration with Cameroon, although this has brought about new insights into what she calls ‘rascepljeni pogled’ – the gaze of the person from the Balkans ‘stretched to a breaking point’ by at the same time being representative of the colonised and emulating the gaze of the Europeans. In this respect, Nikolić describes the changing perception of the Other in the Serbian culture over time as moving from modes of demonization of the Ottoman occupier (‘the Turk’ or ‘the Arab’) found in the Serbian epic poetry, via the 19th century over-idealisation and exoticisation (found in Vujić’s work in amongst others) to the early 20th century position of in-betweeness or liminality (characteristic of Popović). This insight only became more defined in the aftermath of her work on Negri where the idea was to specifically follow Joakim Vujić in seeing the skin colour as a symbol of deprivation which can be abstracted and related to via other modes of oppression.
In Nikolić’s production this representation is only coded through the colour of the costumes ranging between black and white to indicate different shades of privilege among Vujić’s characters. In that case the task was therefore primarily to bring closer to a contemporary audience the 19th century text that was in turn commenting on a time and place removed from its own context of inception.
Since then, and especially in the light of the global Black Lives Matter movement, the tackling of this subject matter acquires different dimensions which are yet to be explored further in Serbian theatre.
In the meantime, it is perhaps worth noting one more interesting historical curiosity, also referenced in a final footnote of Nikolić’s Negri. In 1835, just a year after the foundation of the first Serbian theatre, Prince Miloš Obrenović’s government in newly autonomous Serbia, inspired by the French example, proclaimed its first constitution – the so called ‘Sretenjski ustav’ (‘Candlemas Constitution’). Some 30 years before the final abolition of slavery in America, this document contained the clause which stated that ‘The slave who set foot on the Serbian ground would automatically be freed from slavery and become a free human’.
Unfortunately, due to the scorn and pressure from the European powers at the time, including Russia, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire (whose interests such a document directly contravened), the first Serbian constitution and one of the earliest proclamations of the abolishment of slavery in Europe, was itself abolished just weeks after its proclamation.
Further reading: Darija Davidovic’s essay – Theatre is a memory machine