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Uzbekistan: Tashkent Theater Troupe Overcomes Tragedy

Ilkhom's production of "Ecstasy with the Pomegranate" (Courtesy Photo) Six months ago, Mark Weil was attacked and killed on a dark Tashkent night. But his inspiration is still lighting up the Uzbek capital -- and beyond.

Weil, the founder of the world-renowned Ilkhom Theater, was struck on the head and stabbed in the stomach by unidentified assailants in front of his apartment building on September 6. The 55-year-old, from one of Tashkent's old Jewish families, died the next day.

His last words were, "I open a new season tomorrow -- and everything must happen." Everything, in fact, is still happening.

At the Ilkhom ("inspiration" in Uzbek), the show goes on. The theater, located in a dark and dank Tashkent basement, remains the beacon of artistic excellence and cosmopolitan dissent that it has been since opening in the Soviet Union 32 years ago. On March 14, the troupe begins a tour of the United States, with stops in Seattle, San Franciso, Indiana, Ohio, and at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire.

"Of course, we all were shocked by the death of Mark Yakovlevich," says Boris Gafurov, Ilkhom's new acting director, tells RFE/RL from Tashkent. "The theater was in limbo for a long time. We did not know how to live or what to do, and we are still hurting. Yes, we were in shock. But we have overcome it. Otherwise, we wouldn't have fulfilled any [of Weil's] plans. We continue Mark's cause. We are learning how to live again, and continue doing what he has taught us."

Weil's plans included "Days of American Art," which ran in February with the support of the U.S. Embassy in Tashkent, as well as the U.S. tour that kicks off at the ACT Theater in Seattle, where Weil's wife and two daughters have lived since the late 1990s. Ilkhom will also perform later this year in Germany and is mulling a possible tour in Israel. The company bills its plays, which will carry subtitles abroad, as "understandable by people of all languages and cultures."

"Mark's approach to administration for that theater was quite inclusive, so I feel fairly optimistic," says Margaret Lawrence, a director at the Hopkins Center for the Performing Arts at Dartmouth, where the troupe will perform in April. "He has developed leadership skills among the next level of administrators at Ilkhom to the extent that I feel confident they can continue forward with the same kind of energy and quality that he had."

Haven Of Free Thinking

Among Uzbek theatergoers, Ilkhom seems as popular as ever. Umida, a Tashkent resident and self-professed Ilkhom aficionado, says she sees every play performed at the theater and calls each one an "exquisite masterpiece." Recently, she saw "White White Black Stork," one of Ilkhom's signature pieces.

"This old story is primarily about tolerance -- it's about a boy who has a different sexual orientation but cannot live the life that his physical nature requires," Umida says. "He lives in a Muslim society before [the 1917 Bolshevik] revolution. He is unhappy because he can't reveal his true feelings. He is forced to marry, and his bride is also unhappy. It is a real human tragedy. The performance is so dramatic -- it just captivates audience."

Mark Weil (courtesy photo)

It was Weil's controversial choice of plays as well as his original interpretation of classical pieces that made his small Tashkent troupe immediately famous among Soviet theatergoers. Yet it was more than mere theater that attracted people to Tashkent from all parts of the Soviet Union to see Ilkhom's performances. For many, it was a place of freethinking dissent amid the Soviet gloom.

Weil once told the BBC that he had been under "total pressure" in Soviet days when everything was under "the absolute control of Soviet ideology." He said his independent theater, which has never received any state subsidies, should never have even been born, let alone survive and thrive. "But somehow they [authorities] missed it," he said.

Weil's theater survived through Soviet censorship and the democratic thaw of the late 1980s that gradually reverted to authoritarianism in Uzbekistan. Along the way, Ilkhom has often faced the threat of closure, even as powerful people, such as Uzbek President Islam Karimov's daughters, are frequently seen there.

Weil's murder remains officially unresolved and a criminal probe continues. While suspicions that it was politically motivated are inevitable in this deeply authoritarian land, local media reports say the assailants, who did not rob Weil, were most likely drug addicts. An official with the Uzbek Culture Ministry also reportedly attended Weil's funeral, calling his death "a great loss."

Gafurov says the police have refused to give any details of their investigation.

Worth Reprising

Weil's death was a blow to Tashkent cultural life. The theater has been an island for intellectuals who recall the multiethnic and multilingual Tashkent of years gone by -- and would like to keep it that way. Yet Weil himself famously recorded the slow disappearance of such a city in his 1998 documentary, "The End of an Era: Tashkent."

An ethnic Jew living in a predominantly Muslim society, Weil was one of few who were unafraid to speak up about religious taboos and to challenge customs and stereotypes. He was beloved by Muslims and Jews, Uzbeks and Russians. Inevitably, his plays were a manifestation of his and his city's cosmopolitanism. In his final media interview, to German broadcaster Deutsche Welle, Weil lamented the fading of Tashkent's international flavor, calling Karimov's Uzbekistan "not only undemocratic, but very boring. It is not colorful; it's monochrome."

Yet his troupe has always been diverse.

Maksim Tumenev, 29, an Ilkhom actor and its associate artistic director, says he is still in shock over Weil's death. Yet he says Ilkhom is unlikely to share the fate of some other Uzbek theaters whose actors, especially ethnic Russians, have emigrated for better-paid jobs -- mostly in Russia.

Although growing instability in Uzbekistan eventually led Weil to move his family to Seattle, the man himself resolutely refused to leave his homeland – the only place he truly felt creative, he said. That example inspires Tumenev, who is more motivated than ever to stay home and follow in Weil's footsteps.

"I had intended [to immigrate] due to some personal plans before [Weil's murder]," he says, "but then I suddenly felt a great sense of responsibility. It is not true that there is nothing to stay here for. There is, and some. That's the Ilkhom Theater and everything that Mark Yakovlevich and people around him have created over many years. That's something to stay here for."

Among other works, the Ilkhom troupe will perform "White White Black Stork" in the United States. It is based on books written in the 1920s by Abdulla Qodiriy. An Uzbek "jadid," or reformist writer, Qodiriy was a victim of Stalin's repression and died in a Soviet Gulag in 1938.

Dartmouth College's Lawrence says she has wanted to bring the play to the United States ever since she first saw it four years ago in Tashkent.

"It's so poetic, almost like an inverted Romeo and Juliet story where instead of young lovers who want to be together and their families don't, which leads to tragedy, here you have a young couple who are thrust together with equally tragic results," Lawrence says. "The play hangs together artistically so beautifully, and yet it is a very interesting window into [Muslim] religious censure, the history of Tashkent itself, into Uzbek culture itself."

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