By Manning Harris
Theatrical Outfit’s new production, “Harabel,” is subtitled “A Sparrow Over a Minefield” and will run through Nov. 10. If you go, be sure to check the Outfit’s website because some days have matinées.
And I hope you do go, because this one-woman show is extraordinary. Written and performed by Albanian born Jonida Beqo (who also goes by the performance name Gypsee Yo), it is an unfolding of the great talent, art, and heart of this young woman. Directed with loving care and delicacy by Justin Anderson and produced by Artistic Director Tom Key, I’m happy to report that Theatrical Outfit has given her a sterling production. She is worthy of it.
Jonida Beqo is a performance artist whose gifts transcend genres: she is a poet (an award winner at many prominent poetry slam venues across the nation), a storyteller, and an actress with an astounding gift for movement and dance that I know Martha Graham (whom she reminds me of at times) and Twyla Tharp would applaud. The word “artist” is vastly overused these days; but, truly, that’s what she is. Before this review becomes a complete love letter, I’ll just say that Jonida (she’d want us to call her that) clearly has more talent than any human being should be permitted to have.
She also has a story to tell—a true story of a girl born and raised in Albania for her first 18 years. She experienced the fall of Communism in 1992, a brutal civil war in 1997, and the beginning of ethnic cleansing in the Balkans in 1998. She left her homeland that year and emigrated to the United States. She was alone and 18 years “small,” she says. She also remarks that her destination was “love.”
By the way, “harabel” is the Albanian word for sparrow, birds who roam the world and mostly go unnoticed. These are her words, paraphrased.
Jonida is also a seamstress. The sewing machine, mannequins and sewing implements onstage are metaphors which give physical form to the telling of her story. Director Justin Anderson and Jonida are the set designers; and the entire stage becomes a playground (sometimes a battleground) for the story. Both director and star believe deeply in the power of a story to tap the “collective empathy within the souls of strangers,” writes Anderson; and in “the limitless magic of storytelling” as a “source of catharsis and a continuous invitation to create,” writes Jonida.
If the show sounds a bit heavy, fret not. It’s full of whimsy and humor. For example, when Jonida arrived in the states, she somehow ended up in rural Alabama. “I was the novelty of the town,” she says, with humor and compassion. “I was living proof that there was something else out there.” She reminds us that we must not lose the love of our neighbors.
Jonida has a strong, musical voice that is full of yearning and compassion. She is onstage for the plays’s entire one hour and 35 minutes. Amanda Thompson is listed in the program as “movement consultant”; I’m not sure what that entails. But I know that a lyrical sense of grace in gesture and movement is a huge inborn gift, and Jonida’s got it. I must also say that it’s been a banner year for Anderson, from Aurora’s sellout “Les Miz” to “Harabel.” He is one of the city’s most versatile and talented directors.
You must see Jonida Beqo. She’s one of a kind, and “Harabel” is a transformative experience.
For tickets and information, visit theatricaloutfit.org.