‘Gypsies’ at the Kennedy Center seeks to dispel myths about the Romany

Daniel Domolky/The Kennedy Center - ‘Gypsies’ runs Mar. 15 - 17 at 7:30 p.m. at the Kennedy Center.

For centuries, they have been figures of fear and fascination, in their colorful clothes and seemingly carefree lives. And while gypsies, as they are called, have left their mark on society with their music and verve, ignorance and stereotypes remain.

On reality TV, splashy imported shows of extreme nuptials such as “My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding” are soon to be joined by two shows about American gypsies.

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In bookstores, “Gypsy Boy” by Mikey Walsh is the first of four gypsy memoirs on bestseller lists in England to be released in the States.

And this month at the Kennedy Center, amid a festival of “The Music of Budapest, Prague and Vienna,” where gypsy music is represented as deeply ingrained in the region’s folk music, a retooled play presented by the Katona Jozsef Theatre of Budapest at the Kennedy Center raises contemporary issues of the Romany people also known as gypsies Thursday through Sunday.

“Gypsies” was adapted from the original 1931 version by Jeno J. Tersanszky, but adapted to reflect the modern situation, its company director says.

The old play was “a wonderful piece especially its first half,” says Gabor Mate, through an interpreterfrom Budapest. “My idea was that after the first half of the old play, we just switch to the modern world to another play. And as there were several murders of gypsies in recent years in Hungary, it was quite obvious that we decided to kill one of the characters of the old play.”

A rash of killings in the Romany settlements in Hungary in 2008 and 2009 left six dead.

Just last week, Hungarian gypsies commemorated the third anniversary of the murder of a gypsy man and his 5-year-old son in Tatarszentgyorgy, a village south of Budapest.

Though they had been a source of tension for years, the plight of the Romany people — called gypsies because some erroneously thought they originated from Egypt — has not improved much in Central Europe, says Mate, who is also deputy president of the University of Theater, Film and Television in Budapest.

“There is an idea about them that is in the Hungarian people’s minds that they don’t work, they are lazy and they steal,” he says.

And there may be less understanding and tolerance of the people by the mainstream than there was before, he adds. “During the socialist regime, the gypsies had work, they were taken to be soldiers also, and, in this way, they could be part of the society. Now they are unemployed, and there is no obligatory army service. So they don’t have to do anything basically. There is no obligation for them to be part of the society.”

The veil was lifted on modern gypsy life for TV audiences through the popularity of the English reality shows showcasing their sometimes extravagant wedding ceremonies.

“After the great success of the import ‘My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding’ last year on TLC, we announced that we’d be exploring the secretive gypsy and traveler community right here in the U.S.,” TLC General Manager Amy Winter said in announcing the forthcoming “My Big Fat American Gypsy Wedding” at the TV Critics Association winter press tour.

“TLC lives where the extraordinary meets the everyday, and we are at our best when we take our viewers inside worlds that they might not otherwise get to experience,” says Winter of the Silver Spring-based network.

Coming next month from Washington-based National Geographic Channel is “American Gypsy,” chronicling a Romany family in New York .

“This is much more than just a wedding,” says Bobby Johns, whose family is depicted in the series. “This is about our family, our culture, our beliefs, our traditions.”

“American Gypsy” is being produced in part by former “Karate Kid” Ralph Macchio.

“I was just fascinated by the fact that the subculture existed,” Macchio says. “It was nothing I’ve ever seen before or believed that it existed, right in New York City.”

Over the years, gypsies “have changed dramatically,” says producer Steve Cantor. “Particularly in the last 30 years, to the point that they have really assimilated into our culture. They’re no longer so different, nomadic, wandering, and yet they still have every phase of their life, from education to marriage, to the way they do their weddings, their rituals, funerals, the way they settle disputes — everything is completely different than the way we deal with it.”

“We’re a culture that nobody really knows that much about, and this is why my father decided to do this,” says John’s brother, Nicky. “Because at this time we need to preserve our culture and let people know who we are as a people.”

But according to Mate, such shows help perpetuate “absolutely a stereotype” that won’t lead to greater understanding of the Romi people.i.

A better avenue to understanding the Romany culture may be through music, as its improvisational, freewheeling style and melodies have made their way into works by Bartok, Kodaly, Strauss, Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert, Haydn and Brahms.

“The music of these people gave composers of the West access to a kind of expression that was not part of their vocabulary,” music scholar Saul Lilienstein told a crowd at a Kennedy Center lecture Saturday titled “Intoxicated by Gypsies.”

The clarinet in particular became part of the music of Mozart near the end of his life, perhaps due to the Romany. “The clarinet didn’t exist in orchestras until it was brought to the West mainly by gypsies,” Lilienstein says.

But while “its music has been absorbed” by the wider culture, Mate says, “It would be nice if [the gypsy people] would be present at all levels of life.”

Mate says he hopes “Gypsies” will spark discussions here as it did in Hungary.

“I want that this question doesn’t leave them quiet,” Mate says.

Catlin is a freelance writer.

Gypsies

Thursday through Saturday at 7:30 p.m. at the Kennedy Center, 2700 F St. NW. Presented by the Katona Jozsef Theatre in Hungarian, with English supertitles. Call 202-467-4600 or visit www.kennedy-center.org.

Music of Budapest, Prague and Vienna

continues at the Kennedy Center through March 29

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