The foyer of Martin’s Theater of the Slovak National Uprising was full of chatter and cigarette smoke, broken up by occasional blasts of cold as patrons tramped in off the street, shaking snow from their boots. Otherwise, it was toasty inside, thanks to the bounty of cheap natural gas the Soviet Union still pumped into its former satellites. Alena, my colleague of forty, with light-blonde pixie, pale round face, and thin lips, waited in line with me at the coat check. We understood there was nothing romantic about this outing. She had a “friendship” with the computer science teacher; tonight she was just helping the foreigner get out for a bit of culture.
Once seated, I looked over the program, whose cover read: “Cigáni idú do neba,” “Gypsies go to Heaven.”
It was full of black-and-white images of Gypsy children in ramshackle dwellings. The photos had been manipulated—dark with the edges of faces and other objects brightened, almost like negatives. Black is white and white is black?
“It is based on tale by Maxim Gorky,” said Alena.
Uh-oh, commie stuff. Still, after all the ideologies I’d been exposed to in college, nothing could brainwash me, right?
“It was very popular Soviet film in 1977,” she continued.
“The same year Star Wars came out. I was eleven then, crazy about astronomy and spaceships.”
“Oh, yes, I have heard of this film. Anyway, Gypsies go to Heaven is very well known for its music.”
“Makes sense, given their reputation as strolling violinists.” The only other thing I knew about Roma is that they were originally from India and, according to legend, hadn’t ceased their nomadic ways since leaving home to entertain at a sultan’s banquet. And of course they had a reputation for fortunetelling and thievery. The only Roma I’d encountered thus far worked as street sweepers or black-market moneychangers. There had to be more to this mysterious race.
The lights went down and a farm wagon wobbled onstage, its wooden slats poking up like bare ribs on a supine skeleton. Children in ragged clothes jostled inside, as women in long flowered skirts and men in red silk shirts pushed it along. Two men strummed gut-stringed guitars, accompanying female voices which rang out in a sweet but doleful melody, but after two short verses the music faded, the wagon exited, and a group of men remained on stage.
Hanka, as Alena was known by her Slovak diminutive, occasionally leaned her head to whisper a paraphrase of the action. “The main character is Zobar. He is horse thief.” Uniformed men marched onstage, rifles slung over their shoulders. “They are Austro-Hungarian soldiers,” she continued.
As the Gypsy men fled, a sudden flash of light and the crack of a gunshot made the audience gasp. Zobar stumbled off to stage right. The curtain fell, and a whiff of acrid gunpowder reached my nose. In the next vignette, a beautiful young woman tended to Zobar’s wound. The lights dimmed to the sound of crickets, simulating nightfall. After a brief silence, the lights came up again. Zobar awoke, alone but miraculously healed.
A couple of scenes later, a handful of women and girls entered wearing huge, colorful scarves tied at the corners around their waists. Too light-skinned to be Roma, but they had the audience clapping to the lively refrain:
“Dai, da dada dai, da dada—HOP, HOP, HOP!
yapas tuke, yapas mange—HOP, HOP, HOP!”