Ukrainian Children Bring a Play From a Bomb Shelter to Brooklyn
In a converted Sunday school space in the Fort Greene neighborhood of Brooklyn on Monday, eight children, who recently arrived from Ukraine, gathered on a pair of risers and broke into song.
Hanna Oneshchak, 12, on the accordion, accompanied the other seven as they sang a Ukrainian folk song, “Ta nema toho Mykyty,” about a man who decides to leave the country to seek better work, but then looks to the mountains and, struck by their beauty, changes his mind.
“Whatever the grief we have,” they sang in Ukrainian, “I won’t go to the American land.”
The children, students at the School of Open-Minded Kids Studio Theater in Lviv, were rehearsing the song ahead of two weekend performances of the play “Mama Po Skaipu” (“Mom on Skype”) at the Irondale Center in Brooklyn. This will be the American premiere of the 80-minute show, being presented on Saturday and Sunday night.
“We share our emotions with Americans,”Anastasiia Mysiuha, 14,said in English. And, she said, she hopes that audience members will “better understand what’s happening in Ukraine.”
The show, which will be performed in Ukrainian with English subtitles, is a series of seven monologues about family separation told from the perspective of children. Written by contemporary writers from Lviv, the true stories were inspired by the mass exodus from Ukraine in the 1990s after the fall of the Soviet Union. At that time, many men and women went to other countries to work so they could provide for their families back home.
“Mom on Skype” was first staged in a warehouse-turned-bomb shelter in Lviv, in western Ukraine, in April, just two months after the Russian invasion began. There it was directed by an arts teacher turned active-duty Ukrainian soldier, Oleg Oneshchak, who is the father of two of the children in the play: Hanna and Oleksii, 7. It was one of the few cultural events to take place in Ukraine at that time.
“Lots of people were crying when we did it in Ukraine,” said Khrystyna Hniedko, 14, one of the performers.
Now, the children, ages 7 to 14, are performing for audiences in Brooklyn this weekend.
The idea for the visit came about when Jim Niesen, artistic director of the Irondale Center, the home of the nonprofit Irondale Ensemble Project theater company, saw a photo essay in The New York Times in late April about the performance in Ukraine.
“I was so inspired by them,” Niesen said in an interview at the theater this week. “There was this horrific war going on, and here they were, doing a play.”
He and the theater’s executive director, Terry Greiss, tracked down Oneshchak on Facebook Messenger and proposed an idea: Would he and the children consider bringing the show to Brooklyn?
Oneshchak, the children and their families were all enthusiastic about the idea, and Greiss and the team at Irondale began raising money to pay for travel and accommodation costs — the total bill for the monthlong stay for the eight children and their three chaperones, which will also take them to Connecticut and Massachusetts, is around $40,000, he said. (Oleg Oneshchak wasn’t able to make the trip, but his wife, Mariia Oneshchak, who is also an actor and educator at the theater program, was.)
A majority of the group’s meals have been donated, and many of them are staying in the homes of Irondale board members and others. The offices of Senator Chuck Schumer and Representative Hakeem Jeffries also helped the group book visa appointments, which are difficult to secure because so many people are trying to leave Ukraine, ahead of their arrival on July 22.
The generosity of other donors meant that the itinerary for the trip quickly ballooned to include a weeklong performing arts summer camp in Connecticut, where the children taught American campers three Ukrainian folk songs; an outing to see “The Lion King” on Broadway; visits to the Guggenheim Museum and Coney Island; a Russ & Daughters bagel factory tour; and a private tour of the Statue of Liberty.
When we spoke at Monday’s rehearsal, Valeriia Khozhempa, 12, she said she had been immediately struck by one thing: the absence of air-raid sirens.
“It’s a really beautiful life,” she said. “In Ukraine, there are so many air alarms.”
There was also a humorous attribute, Khrystyna said: American politeness. “People always say ‘Sorry’ and ‘Excuse me,’” she said. “It’s surprising because everyone is really polite.”
The children began working on the show in January before being forced to halt rehearsals when Russia invaded Ukraine. Even though the play was originally about stories from the 1990s, families are being separated again because men are fighting in the war. (Most Ukrainian men ages 18 to 60 — of conscription age — are not allowed to leave the country.)
The theme of each of the show’s monologues is that parents do not realize how detrimental their decisions, even if financially prudent, can be to their children’s happiness. “Money can never compensate you for losing your connection to the people you love,” a character says in one of the stories, titled “Through the Eyes of Children.”
All of the children are anxious about whether American audience members will understand their message, because of the language barrier and having to read subtitles.
“I know it will be hard,” Anastasiia said. “But if they will come, I hope they will try to understand.”
All of the proceeds from this weekend’s shows — as well as performances in Hartford, Conn., and Boston next week — will go toward a fighter jet that the group hopes to help purchase for the Ukrainian military. (A used jet costs approximately $1 million, Oleg Oneshchak said.)
Hanna Oneshchak, who sings a patriotic Ukrainian song she wrote, said she hoped the audience would see not just the play, but the underlying message about the war that the performers embody.
“The world sees this like a film,” she said. “I want them to remember us.”