November 20, 2018

This October, Milan Dragicevich and a cohort that featured UMass Theater students, staff, and alumni brought a refugee story home — to Serbia. Sudbina Theatre Company, created by members of the UMass Theater cast and creative team of who were part of the 2016 premiere of Dragicevich's Refugee, wanted the play to live on beyond its Curtain Theater run. Their passion for the project led them, last fall, to the JoakimInterFest in Kragujevac, Serbia, where they performed the play in front of Serbians whose forebears might have had the own experiences in the desert.

The origins of the story

Professor Milan Dragicevich’s play, Refugee, tells the stories of two Serbian sisters fleeing their homeland during World War II. They spend years as refugees in El Shatt, a tent city in the Sinai Desert in Egypt, and their descendants eventually end up on opposite sides of the Atlantic, in Belgrade and Appalachia.

El Shatt was a real refugee camp that housed thousands of Serbs, Dragicevich’s mother among them — it was her story that inspired the play. In October of this year, Dragicevich and a company composed largely of UMass alumni and current members brought the story to JoakimInterFest in Kragujevac, Serbia. This return to the story’s roots was rendered all the more poignant by the fact that even Serbians are often unaware of this chapter in their history, even as they find themselves in the midst of another refugee story playing out in the present day.

“Each time we do this play, we learn a little more about it,” Dragicevich said. “We discover new layers of meaning and new ways of bringing it out theatrically.”

This is the second time Dragicevich has brought one of his works to the festival. His piece, Milosevic At The Hague, about the Serbian dictator tried for war crimes and the people he affected, started as a project with Northampton’s Serious Play (and also featured a handful of UMass alumni and students) before traveling to the festival. 

Refugee started as a mainstage production at UMass Theater in the fall of 2016, bringing the story to the stage with UMass Theater faculty, staff, and students, with guest artists including Grammy-nominated musician Tim Eriksen and Serbian director Nikita Milivojevic. After that production wrapped, many of those involved wanted to explore the piece further, and they formed the Sudbina Theater Company and mounted the play at the Shea Theatre in Turners Falls, MA in October, 2017.

“People decided that they wanted to keep investigating the story and sharing it,” Dragicevich said.

With some recasting, that same group then made plans to take the play across the ocean to the JoakimInterFest in October 2018. Dragicevich is full of admiration for the group’s dedication and organizational skills. “They jumped in with both feet to make this happen,” he said, from building a website to putting on fundraisers to get the company across the ocean.

As for the play, said Dragicevich, Refugee’s story resonated with Serbs as much as it did with Americans. “This is a country that has seen so much exile and exodus, especially in the 20th century… A lot of people in that part of the world have a lot of sad, sorrowful recollections of migration,” Dragicevich said. Currently, he notes, Serbia is caught in the middle of the flood of refugees from Syria. Serbia is a stop on the way to the European Union for many.

“We’ve all come from somewhere,” he said, adding that his play is “bigger than any one person’s story. It’s a vehicle, something that people can relate to.”

That said, many are unaware of the El Shatt story in Serbia, and Dragicevich valued the chance to bring Serbian audiences something about their history that they didn’t know about.

There’s a moment in the play where the two sisters sing a 300-year-old Serbian folk song in the original language, and it proved as reliable a goose-bump moment in Serbia as it did in western Massachusetts.

“The whole audience broke out into applause. They couldn’t believe they had learned it,” he said.

While Dragicevich and his family have traveled to Serbia frequently, only cast member Troy David Mercier ’06 had been there before, as a cast member of Milosevic at the Hague.

Serbia, as part of south-eastern Europe, is a place where empires clashed for 500 years, and as such is a cultural crossroads. “They had to travel and leave a safe space,” Dragicevich said of the company. “The cultural experience was equally valuable as the artistic experience. It was really cool to see (Serbia) through their eyes.”

Below, some of the cast members share their experiences via email
Lena Vani (Sava)
Did performing in front of a Serbian audience give you have any new insights into the play? 

Performing in front of a Serbian audience was very nerve racking for me. I haven’t been nervous before a show in a very long time, and especially not with REFUGEE. But knowing that I would be sharing a part of the people’s history with them that they likely didn’t know about, I became hyper aware of the emotional weight of the scenes. 
How did the play fell different or the same for you, performing in a different country? 
I’ve always found European audiences more critical than in America. A standing ovation is rare- if someone stands it is because they earnestly enjoyed the show more than average. I actually really admire this. This is a way to get real feedback from a performance. It is also a challenge performing to an audience that does not speak your language. Certain parts of text need to be slowed down, in order to give time for the super-titles and story to catch up with each other. This took some practice for me, as sometimes it seemed unnatural to keep the pacing toned down. 

Did you get to see any of the rest of the festival? Any memorable moments? 
I did go to see every other show in the festival. The only show I didn’t see was the last performance which technically wasn’t a part of the festival, but was a tribute performance from the residing Theater company. Of course I did not comprehend most of the shows as none of them were in English. But I’d have to say the one from Bosnia was my favorite. I got more of the story than I did the others and you could immediately tell the directing was well-crafted. It was also interesting how even though I didn’t know what was going on, there were a lot of time where I could tell something was not working for the show, which would always be confirmed either by Milan or other patrons after speaking with them about it. 
What was the most memorable non-theater moment of the trip for you? 
Wow that is a hard question. So many things were memorable. Seeing the bombed-out buildings in Belgrade … visiting a monastery in the mountains and singing Wayfaring stranger was so special, and just being there all together as a cast and crew was invaluable. We were also fortunate to have dinner with the shows original directors Nikita and Amalia! It was such a treat to see them, I think I cried 3 times. One other really special thing that made the trip such a powerful experience was that since we spent a whole week in Kragujevac, we were able to really get to know and spend time with people who were involved with the theater there. I made some very good friends which I was not expecting!
Olivia Holcomb (Danica)
Did performing in front of a Serbian audience give you have any new insights into the play? How did the play feel different or the same for you, performing in a different country? 
Performing in Serbia was truly an experience. One I am forever grateful for.  I think this question will be different depending on who you ask. Because the play operates in different geographical locations and, specifically my location, being Appalachia, I think it was lost to many because it’s so foreign to the (Serbian) audience, I think it really surprised them. 
I think being in Serbia provided a solidification of my character being surrounded by such a rich and tragic history with so many layers. My understanding deepened of where this play came from. The spirits and the past were palpable.  
Did you get to see any of the rest of the festival? Any memorable moments? 
Yes. I was able to see four plays. The first night was a Russian company. They worked into their play a live translation. It was hard to understand, in fact I couldn't understand a word, but it was visually interesting with clearly sophisticated and extremely well-trained actors performing. The most memorable production that I saw was a group from Bosnia, which was just absolutely brilliant. I remember leaving the theater with goosebumps — not having a clue what had been said for the last 2 hours but completely enraptured … their execution as actors and as an ensemble was so specific and unapologetic. They really captured the audience. Their set was enormous and used well. 

What was the most memorable non-theater moment of the trip for you? 
Belgrade. What a gritty, dramatic and fascinating city! Arriving in Belgrade was truly special. I spend the three days there walking — 30 miles in 3 days. I wanted to explore and see everything I could. What struck me the most was the contrast of buildings to people. The buildings were gray and boxy — a mix of different architecture throughout time including Soviet, Turkish and Brutalist. 
The people were bright, high fashion, busy and vibrant; they seemingly all had a story to tell about their past and their history. It was very cool. I ate delicious authentic foods and saw many magnificent cathedrals that were inspired by the Serbo-Byzantine style. In fact, we visited a monastery near Kragujevac that had Byzantine frescos painted on the walls and ceilings of the chapel. That was a sacred experience. We were greeted by nuns who took care of the Monastery. They offered us coffee and Rakija and customary "moonshine" that seems like every Serbian house hold makes. We sat and took in the beauty and serenity of where we were.