As the audience finishes seating themselves, a barely audible hum begins. At once, eighteen actors run onto the stage, whispering the same phrase over and over again. Their bodies twist and turn in slow motion, mimicking decapitation. The drone becomes louder; now they are all screaming the same phrase: “Blackwhite!” And all of a sudden, it stops, as the heads of the actors roll off of their bodies.
Americans generally consider folklore to be a lesser literary form, perhaps due to its typically far-fetched narrative style. Many American children’s primary exposure to this genre occurs in school, where these stories often serve as historical texts (e.g. the folktale of John Henry, the miner, to depict feelings of resentment towards technology during the Industrial Revolution). In short, folklore is rarely included in the canon of American literature.
In Romania, by contrast, folklore occupies a very different status. Folktales have played a major role in the shaping of traditional culture as well as modern practices. Evident in nearly every facetof society, people from all walks of life grow up with these stories; politicians justify decisions by referencing them, literary critics analyze them, and philosophers develop theories based on them. And, out of all of these stories, none is more revered than Blackwhite.
Passed down through oral narration for centuries, different variants of Blackwhite (called Harap Alb in Romanian) existed in all corners of the country. In 1877, the Moldavian-born writer Ion Creangă collected, transcribed, combined, and published them in an 1877 novella that, to this day, remains the definitive version of the story. Telling the account of a prince who goes on an adventure to claim his dying uncle’s throne, the tale is distinct from American folklore in terms of its complex character development, profound symbolism, and dark themes. Throughout his adventure, the prince encounters many obstacles, becoming enslaved, tortured, and nearly killed. And yet, by the end of the story, he emerges strong, having undergone profound changes both psychologically and emotionally.
This tale has had immense influence in Romania, with many post-modern and absurdist movements adopting and altering the story. It has been adapted into ballets, films, graphic novels, and plays. Political theorists have deployed it as a narrative about class struggle; historians have referenced it as a way to conceptualize Romania as a nation-state after the downfall of the communist leader Nicolae Ceaușescu in 1989. As significant as Ion Creangă’s story has been in Romania, it remains relatively obscure in the United States. English translations exist, but they are, for the most part, outdated, failing to capture the true essence of the story.
Vasile Flutur, a Romanian playwright and actor, set out to translate and dramatize the original text into English in late 2014.
“I think that Harap Alb is unique because its messages about morality transcend geographical boundaries,” explained Flutur. “This is different from American folktales, which have a very specific historical and physical context.”
In his script, the dialogue resembles that of a Shakespearean play, with a Greek chorus narrating the plot in iambic pentameter. Horses are bicycles; a woman plays the male protagonist; more than one actor plays many of the characters, sometimes even simultaneously.
“Cultural bridge is a phrase I’m very interested in,” said Flutur when describing his project. “Romania’s very far, so [the play] is a long, thin, and shaky [one]. But it’s there.”
Indeed, the play attempts to bridge the path between seemingly contradictory worlds: America and Romania, traditional theatre and experimental theatre, normal and absurd, good and evil. Even the very title reflects this, as the colors black and white are opposites.
John P. McEneny, artistic director at Piper Theatre Productions, a theatre workshop located in Washington Park, Brooklyn, became intrigued by the project in early 2015.
“The chance for [Flutur] to mine one of the most important [and] iconic folk tales of Romania for imagery [and] storytelling… seemed like a no-brainer,” he remarked. “Black White… is [a] personal tale of Romanian identity that reverberates deeply with Vasile, and I know it will change both him and the lives of the [actors] he’s working with.”
The production, now in the final stages of rehearsal at Piper for performances at the end of July, is both experimental and innovative. While the actors are clothed in traditional Romanian clothing, the set is bare and minimalist. On stage for the duration of the show, each member of the cast of eighteen follows complex paths throughout the space, using their bodies as the primary means of storytelling as they transform into different characters and settings. The actors utilize bicycle parts as props in creative ways — an old wheel serves as the moon, chains become whips, a tricycle from the 1930s represents a horse. This utterly post-modern staging rejuvenates the old folktale, allowing the story to reach across temporal, linguistic and cultural divides.
The bottom line: Directed by Vasile Flutur and Adi Bulboacă (esteemed Romanian theatre photographer), Blackwhite: The Adventures of Harap Alb will be performed at the Romanian Cultural Institute in Manhattan on Thursday, July 23rd, at the Old Stone House in Brooklyn on Friday, July 24th, and in the MS 51 Auditorium on Saturday, July 25th. This play is a must-see. Breathing new life into a relatively unknown tale, this production will certainly be one to remember.