Last night, I called an old actor pal out of sense of obligation and perhaps to have a 5 PM beer. No can do sez he, as he is performing. What's on? asks I.
'I am playing B---. Be at the Drama Theater at 7 if you want.'
It really did not make much difference what he meant by playing B---, because I realized that I had never see him perform live, and that I had never been in the Drama Theater in the years I have been associated with Az: it was always closed or under repair or I had not time or interest to see Chekov in Azerbaijani. As for Rafiq, I have seen him in films dating back to the late Soviet period, but nothing recent. He is a character actor, and often got stuck playing the role of Armenians; he says he tries to humanize the roles. Accordingly, I assumed the production he had invited me to was going to be something along those lines, and perhaps even a comedy.
Anyway, I drifted back to my crash-pad through heavy traffic, feeling increasingly woozy and not a little irritated that I am sort of stuck in Baku again due to a ticket glitch, and sort of forced to stomach the rampant materialism that the oil boom is bringing to this place: the hideous new buildings, the rows of boutiques and car show-rooms, jewelry stores and such. So I lie down for a cat nap that doesn't kick in, and watch the clock creep forward from five to six and then six thirty and I am about to blow off the entire go-to-the-theater thing because I really am working on two dead cyllinders, but say to myself that it is either now or never and Rafiq is an old friend. So I force myself up, throw down some cold coffee and get out the door to make my way through the traffic-clogged, cold and dirty streets over to the theater, wondering how I can get a ticket at 5 minutes to 7 o'clock and curtain time. At the door, I notice lots of folks all dolled up in near tuxes and heels and much fur, and when the attendant at the door asks who I am I say I am a pal of Rafiq's and suddenly he pushes a comp or something like a program in my hand, and I am sort of whisked up stairs toward row 2 and seat 11, stopped briefly by someone who sees that I am still wearing my coat and told I cannot entire when my old pal the minister of culture appears and I say hello while taking off my coat and then I am inside and in my seat and I realize that this is no ordinary show. It is the 125th birthday celebration of Javit Hussein, a famed Azerbaijani poet and dramaturgue of whom I have some information but whom I have never really read or studied, aside from the general sort of knowledge that one picks up from friends and the occassional article about Azerbaijanis who were repressed by Stalin. The stage doesn't tell me much about anything; the set is minimalist; dark and sort of made up of black boards with names on them. An idiot would recognize that these represent Javit's main works: Mother; Satan/Iblis; Teymur The Gimp/Lame; Sheikh Senan. I have read none of them. Curtain up, as it were, and the show starts with a speech by the deputy Prime Minister, who in effect fills me in on some life detail, including the curious fact that my old pal the late great semi-dictator Heydar Aliyev was the one who managed to convince the Kremlin to allow Javit's remains to be brought back from obscurity in Siberia and re-interred in his native Naxjivan in 1982 on the 100th anniversary of the writer's birth. Usually, deputy prime ministers fawn and fumble for words when evoking Heydar, but this speech is actually straight to the point--namely, that the 25 years bracketing Javit's return and tonight's jubilee have been a time of huge transformation in Azerbaijan. Polite applause, followed by a short video clip about Javit's life, repression and death, and then finally, show time.
The actors seem to stumble a little bit, and Rafiq is nowhere to be seen. I worry that I will fall asleep; my Azerbaijani is good, but this is all literary stuff and a lot more difficult to follow than conversation over a bottle of vodka. Indeed, what I am listening to is elegant Azerbaijani, prose and poetry. And step by step the production improves, while I get drawn in as the main theme emerges: the repression of Javit by enthusiastic new communists, who sling accusations at him of Pan-turanism, pan-Islamism, elitism, bourgeoism and a general neglect for The Revolution and The Toiling Masses, and take apart every one of his master pieces after segments of same are performed. Timur the Gimp (Tamurlane) and his showdown with the Ottoman Sultan Yildirim Beyazit, which splits the Turkic world; Sheikh Senan being forced to drink wine, wear a cross and commit to herd pigs; a weird and wonderful whirling dervish set piece with the national mughamist treasure Alim Qasimov making a sneak vocal appearance, all deliciously staged and clean and closing with the re-appearance of the crowd, mocking and taunting the actor playing Javit the old man before his repression. And then, a booming voice from one of the ornate private balconies nearest the stage, and the crowd turns its adultation and applause on---Rafiq, playing the Stalin/Beria era Boshevik 'baron' of Baku, Comrade Bagirov. The only thing I can say is that he was very, very good--a real professional, and that I felt honored to be his friend. And as for the rest of the production, everything is finally meshing, as state artist after state artist appears to play certain 'classic' roles, culminating in Iblis, or Satan, who lures a youth into a duel with a pal (or brother?) over a gal. Boom boom; regrets; curtain down. Standing ovation--and yours truly stumbles out of the show he almost did not go to, stunned by it all--and even more so when I got back stage to shake Rafiq's hand, only to learn that this was a one-time only performance (whence the initial stumbling at curtain-up?) that I had almost missed. And more.
Reflecting on it all, amazing to witness of the re-birth of Dramatic Theater in post-Soviet Azerbaijan.
Happy New Year to all
Update: related here.