CLUJ, Romania (Reuters) - Inside the grey walls of an independent theatre in the northwest Romanian city of Cluj, Roma actress Elena Duminica braided the hair of her colleague Mihaela Dragan ahead of their show.
As she braided, the theatre tested the lights for the play, “Gadjo Dildo”, a cabaret-like performance inspired by real stories about the sexism and racism Roma women are often subject to in Romania.
The title is a play on words from a 1997 film, “Gadjo Dilo”, which means “Crazy Stranger” in Romani, the language of the 2 million Roma in the country, around a 10th of the population.
It is the first play staged by the Romanian feminist Roma theatre company Giuvlipen, which Dragan co-founded in 2014 because, she saw no alternative for the way Roma people were represented in the arts.
“We advocate for Roma artists to have a voice, because Roma art was pretty marginalised and never valued, always stereotyped. I think this is our role, to make Roma art mainstream and cool, so that people come to our shows and talk about them.”
There was no word for feminism in Romani, so Dragan and her colleagues created one — Giuvlipen. The troupe has staged performances inspired by real events that deal with discrimination, arranged under-age marriages, lack of access to education, mental illness and Roma LGBT issues.
The Roma are Europe’s largest ethnic minority. Out of an estimated 10-12 million, more than half live in the EU, which Romania joined in 2007, and many are victims of prejudice and social exclusion.
In Romania, the World Bank has estimated nine out of 10 Roma live in severe material deprivation, most of them children, lacking access to basic education and healthcare.
Social inclusion programmes and anti-discrimination laws are in place, but racism against the minority goes back centuries in the country, where Roma were kept as slaves by monasteries or local overlords until the 19th century.
Roughly 25,000 Roma were deported from Romanian-controlled territory during World War Two, when the country was an ally of Nazi Germany. Almost half of them died.
Giuvlipen tells these stories, while trying to show Roma culture is “alive, contemporary, vanguardist, progressive,” said Dragan, who also acts at Berlin’s Maxim Gorki Theatre.
Throughout the fall, Giuvlipen - based in capital Bucharest - toured the country under the headline “Roma Theatre is not Nomadic”, campaigning to open a state-funded Roma theatre.
Romania funds theatres for its Jewish, Hungarian and German minorities. Giuvlipen has yet to make a formal request for funding, but have invited city hall officials to their shows.
“There is need for contemporary Roma culture, because people just know the sensational things they see on TV,” said Giuvlipen member and actress Zita Moldovan. “A Roma theatre could tell stories, it would be useful for both us and the Romanian population,” she said.
Additional reporting and writing by Luiza Ilie; Editing by Jeremy Gaunt