Alina Serban: Tackling anti-Roma racism through theatre
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Roma activist, actress, director and playright Alina Serban has been performing excerpts of her one woman play in Paris. Now she plans to adapt the play that was first performed in New York a decade ago to challenge racist attitudes towards Roma people in France.
Wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with "I'm Roma, but I won't steal your children," Alina Serban bursts on stage for her first ever performance in French.
Serban wrote the play, "I declare at my own risk" while studying acting for a semester in New York a decade ago. It deals with her turbulent childhood in Bucharest.
"Unfortunately, after communism ended we lost our house when I was eight...then my life really changed when we went to live with my uncle in a traditional Roma yard," Serban explained.
Roma people make up the largest minority in Europe. There are around 11 million Roma worldwide, the majority live in Bulgaria, Romania and Turkey.
Roma communities have faced discrimination for centuries, including in France where over 10,000 were deported under Nicolas Sarkozy's government. In March 2019, false rumours on social media claiming that some Roma people had kidnapped children north of Paris led to violence.
"I have made a bet with myself to one day perform the whole play in French...not just a translation of the play, but with some original content for a French audience," Serban said.
The 10 minute performance Serban gave at the Médiatheque Matéo Maximoff was received with enthusiasm by the audience, many of whom were Roma. During the question and answer session that followed it became clear that there are a lack of positive Roma role models in France.
Army of angels
Serban was the first person in her family to graduate from high school. This despite her father passing away when she was 19 and her mother going to prison a few years earlier.
She went on to attend a prestigious acting school in Bucharest, and was selected to study for a semester at Tisch School of the Arts in New York. Serban also spent a year at England's leading acting academy, Rada.
"No matter how hard things were for me, I have always had people looking out for me, especially women, like an army of angels," Serban said with tears in her eyes.
Going abroad gave Serban the perspective she needed to be able to challenge discrimination when she returned to Bucharest.
"When I grew up there were no representations that showed us as just humans...we were either cast as exotic creatures meant only to entertain people or as bad people," Serban lamented.
Her play the 'Great Shame' dealt head-on with the enslavement of Roma people in the territory that is now modern-day Romania that was eventually abolished in the 1840s. Until Serban first staged the play, the dark chapter in Romania's history was not spoken about publicly, and was left out of history textbooks.
"It was incredible for me to take my young cousins to see my play about slavery, because I didn't even know about this part of our history until I was 20," explained Serban.
The big screen
Serban made her debut on the big screen during the Cannes Film Festival in 2018. She is the main actress in the film 'Alone at my own wedding' directed by the Belgian filmmaker Marta Bergman. The film is currently being shown at cinemas in France.
"It was obvious to me that she was the right person for the part almost immediately. She even told me during the casting that she felt the part was made for her," recounted Bergman.
The film tells the story of a young Roma woman who marries a Belgian man and moves to Belgium.
For Serban the film is one of very few to depict Roma with dignity, "the ace in the sleeve of this film is it's humanity. It is something we miss in films today."