WHEN A phone call led to an appointment to meet some theater people from Yugoslavia at the Museum of American History last March, I did not know what I was getting into.
There was a high-level official from the State Department, two officials from the Yugoslav Embassy, a sprinkling of media representatives, and some people from other local theaters. We were all herded together in a little side room to meet with Ljubisa Ristic, director of the Zagreb Theatre Company.
A video screen was rolled in. A tape appeared and was inserted. The lights went out.
Suddenly, we were all watching a television special made in Australia about a production of "The Liberation of Skopje" written by Dusan Jovanovic, which toured several Australian cities in 1981 and was later videotaped for public broadcast there. Its lead actor, Rade Serbedzija, won the Sammy Award for Best Actor that year, Australia's equivalent to our Emmys. Serbedzija's character, Georgij, is a Yugoslav resistance leader during World War II who is caught, tortured and crippled by some not-so-secret Bulgarian agents at the bidding of an ever-present and smiling Nazi officer.
When the lights came up, I noticed a few people were missing. They had slipped out quietly. Being one of the few invitees left, I had the feeling that I was being watched.
The proposition was simple: sponsor a two-week run of "The Liberation of Skopje."
The Zagreb Theatre Company had been invited as one of a handful of international companies to appear at the World Theatre Festival in Denver this July. Since the company was bringing 45 people to this country, including cast, crew and families, it seemed only natural to make a jaunt of it. They were arranging performances in several other American cities and Mexico. Somehow they were under the impression that Washington was an important international city. They wanted to include it in their tour. Having no promise of funding or technical support, no idea where we were going to do the show since it had to be done outdoors, no assurances that the city would comply with our request to close part of C Street for two weeks and there construct twin 400-seat theaters from scratch, and no guarantee that anyone would come to see a play performed primarily in Serbo-Croatian, I said, "Sure. Why not?" (The two theaters were necessary for this reason: Instead of changing the scenery, we simply moved the audience to a new space.)
Several spots were considered, including under Key Bridge and behind the old Washington Project for the Arts, but the Apex Building was settled on both for its central location and its appearance, which was to suggest a bombed-out East European city. The rest is history: debating where to put portable toilets; dangling out of a fourth-story window to hang our banner; bribing a construction foreman with six-packs of beer to keep the street repair noise down on Pennsylvania Avenue during performances; seeing Bread and Salt, the rock band traveling with the company to provide pre-show and incidental music, raise the roof at d.c. space during an impromptu concert; keeping a bleary-eyed watch all night over the site for security; having the show's make-believe agents, officers and resistance heroes mingle with real armed undercover cops at the Fraternal Order of Police bar directly behind the set; and, of course, the plays themselves, both "The Liberation of Skopje" and "Karamozovs," the latter based on the 1948 split between Tito and Stalin, which brought audiences to their feet time and again.
The company has traveled on to Wildwood, Los Angeles, New York and beyond. I have never been to Yugoslavia, but I believe the Source Theatre Company brought a little bit of Yugoslavia to Washington. As the last echoes of the Zagreb's gypsy songs fade along the now empty downtown streets, I find myself longing for the twisting coast of the Adriatic and mumbling Slavic words with quadruple consonants whose meanings I am beginning to grasp.