In a converted Sunday school space in the Fort Greene neighborhood of Brooklyn, eight children, who had recently arrived from Ukraine, gathered on some risers and began to sing.
Hanna Oneshchak, 12, on the accordion, joined the other seven as they sang a Ukrainian national anthem, “Ta nema toho Mykyty”, about a man who decides to leave the country to look for better work, but then looks to the mountains and, struck by their beauty, he changes his mind.
“Whatever grief we have,” they sang in Ukrainian, “I’m not going to the American country.”
The children, students of the School of Open-Minded Kids Studio Theater in Lviv, rehearsed the song ahead of two weekend performances of the play “Mama Po Skaipu” (“Mom on Skype”) at Brooklyn’s Irondale Center. This will be the US premiere of the 80-minute show, which will be presented on Saturday and Sunday evenings.
‘We share our emotions with Americans’ Anastasiia Mysiuha, 14, said in English. And, she said, she hopes spectators will “better understand what is happening in Ukraine.”
The show, which will be performed in Ukrainian with English subtitles, is a series of seven monologues about family separation, told from the perspective of children. Written by contemporary writers from Lviv, the true stories were inspired by the mass exodus from Ukraine in the 1990s after the fall of the Soviet Union. At that time, many men and women went to other countries to work so that they could provide for their families at home.
“Mom on Skype” was first performed in April, just two months after the Russian invasion began, in a warehouse turned bomb shelter in Lviv, western Ukraine. There it was directed by an art teacher turned active Ukrainian soldier, Oleg Oneshchak, who is the father of two of the children in the play: Hanna and Oleksii, 7. It was one of the few cultural events that took place in Ukraine in that time.
“A lot of people were crying when we did it in Ukraine,” said Khrystyna Hniedko, 14, one of the performers.
Now the kids, ages 7 to 14, are performing in front of audiences in Brooklyn this weekend.
The idea for the visit came when Jim Niesen, artistic director of the Irondale Center, home of the nonprofit theater company Irondale Ensemble Project, saw a photo essay in DailyExpertNews about the performance in Ukraine in late April.
“I was so inspired by it,” Niesen said in an interview at the theater this week. “There was a horrible war going on, and here they were, doing a play.”
He and the theater’s executive director, Terry Greiss, tracked down Oneshchak on Facebook Messenger and suggested an idea: Would he and the kids consider bringing the show to Brooklyn?
Oneshchak, the kids and their families were all excited about the idea, and Greiss and the Irondale team started raising money to pay for travel and lodging – the total bill for a month’s stay for the eight children and their families. three escorts, which also take them to Connecticut and Massachusetts, is about $40,000, he said. (Oleg Oneshchak was unable to make the trip, but his wife, Mariia Oneshchak, who is also an actor and educator on the theater program, was.)
A majority of the group’s meals are donated and many of them reside in the homes of Irondale board members and others. The offices of Senator Chuck Schumer and Representative Hakeem Jeffries also helped the group book visa appointments, which are hard to come by with so many people trying to leave Ukraine before their July 22 arrival.
The generosity of other donors meant the itinerary for the trip quickly exploded with a week-long performing arts summer camp in Connecticut, where the kids taught American campers three Ukrainian folk songs; an outing to see “The Lion King” on Broadway; visits to the Guggenheim Museum and Coney Island; a tour of the Russ & Daughters bagel factory; and a private tour of the Statue of Liberty.
Speaking at Monday’s rehearsal, Valeriia Khozhempa, 12, said she was immediately struck by one thing: the absence of air raid sirens.
“It really is a beautiful life,” she said. “In Ukraine, there are so many air raid sirens.”
There was also a humorous quality, Chrystyna said: American politeness. “People always say ‘Sorry’ and ‘Excuse me,'” she said. “It’s surprising because everyone is very polite.”
The kids started working on the show in January before being forced to halt rehearsals when Russia invaded Ukraine. Although the play was originally about stories from the 1990s, families are again separated as men fight in the war. (Most Ukrainian men aged 18 to 60 – of military age – are not allowed to leave the country.)
The theme of each of the show’s monologues is that parents fail to realize how damaging their decisions, even if they are financially wise, can be to their children’s happiness. “Money can never compensate for the loss of your connection with the people you love,” says a character in one of the stories, titled “Through the Eyes of Children”.
All children worry about whether the American public will understand their message because of the language barrier and having to read subtitles.
“I know it will be difficult,” Anastasiia said. “But when they come, I hope they will try to understand.”
All proceeds from this weekend’s shows – as well as performances in Hartford, Conn. and Boston next week — going to buy a fighter jet the group hopes to help the Ukrainian military. (A used jet costs about $1 million, Oleg Oneshchak said.)
Hanna Oneshchak, who sings a patriotic Ukrainian song she wrote, said she hoped audiences would see not only the piece, but also the underlying message about war that the performers embody.
“The world sees this as a movie,” she said. “I want them to remember us.”