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Ira Aldridge admires Taras Shevchenko's painting

photos by Pavlo Terekhov

Taras Shevchenko 's "The Sky's Unwashed"

Ira Aldridge performs Othello's monolog

Katya translates Shevchenko poem to Ira

Ira & Taras search the Bible to find words in common

"Censor, why?"

Aldridge performs monolog from "King Lear"

Shevchenko tells of his arrest

Ira and Katya hear of Shevchenko's exile

Shevchenko paints Aldridge

"New Jerusalem"

"It's all the same to me"

"But it's not all the same to me..."


Katya tells of the two artists who made a home in her house

Julian Kytasty as the Kobzar



In 1858 the Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko was set free after 10 years imprisonment. He met the great African American actor Ira Aldridge and drew his portrait.

created by Yara Arts Group:
Sean Eden, Julian Kytasty, Maria Pleshkevich,
Jeremy Tardy, Barak Tucker & Shona Tucker

conceived & directed by Virlana Tkacz
music: Julian Kytasty
translations: Virlana Tkacz & Wanda Phipps
set & lights Watoku Ueno
costumes: Keiko Obremski
projections: Waldemart Klyuzko

June 3-19, 2016  La MaMa Experimental Theatre, NY


"Dark Night, Bright Stars" is one of those pleasant surprises… a play that actively distances itself from traditional forms of storytelling and instead communicates its messages through fragments of memories and poetry readings. On the surface level, this play is a story about two friends with similar pasts having a cultural exchange, but dig deeper and you discover themes of race and poverty, oppression and liberation, diaspora and the yearning for home.
"Dark Night, Bright Stars" chronicles the meeting of Ira Aldridge (Jeremy Tardy), an African-American Shakespearean actor who rose to prominence in Europe during the nineteenth century, and Taras Shevchenko (Sean Eden), the influential poet who is often credited with contributing to the rise of the modern Ukrainian language. In a meeting facilitated and recorded by Katya Tolstoy (Maria Pleshkevich), Aldridge and Shevchenko kindle a friendship with one another, finding solace in their troubled pasts of servitude and loneliness. This friendship culminates with Shevchenko painting Aldridge's portrait before the two depart, promising to meet again, a promise that would never be realized.
Visually the play is striking… set design is minimalist, consisting of a single table, a chair, and an easel, pushed off to the side so the attention is brought to the actors in the center stage. The backdrop is beautifully designed, adorned with a decorative carved border and projections of still-lifes during flashback and poetry sequences. Younger versions of the characters enter and exit through a door in this backdrop, effortlessly establishing the fact that they are visions of the past.
Timothy Esteves, New York Theatre Wire, June 3, 2016.

   The show opens with the bandurist Julian Kytasty in an alcove that is part of the simple yet beautiful set design by Watoku Ueno. A bare background is outlined with woodcuts and used to show off the projections by Waldemart Klyuzko, the first of which is a painting by Shevchenko depicting a girl in bright Ukrainian costume.   When Shevchenko and Aldridge met, they discovered that they were both deeply affected by the loss of their mothers when they were 9. Aldridge’s mother appears in flashback scenes. Shona Tucker stuns with her strong voice as she sings to her son, the young Ira played by Barak Tucker.
   When the translator wasn’t present, Shevchenko and Aldridge learned to communicate through the use of a few words….This is where the acting really shines. Even though Messrs. Eden and Tardy are both speaking English, we are convinced that they don’t understand each other… Another poignant moment is Shevchenko’s recitation of “It’s All the Same to Me” translated by Virlana Tkacz and Wanda Phipps… Mr. Eden’s powerful voice adds to the touching and inflammatory nature of the poem.
Olena Jennings, review in Ukrainian Weekly, June 26, 2016

No other recent Yara show was as popular and well-attended. Twelve packed performances is a great success for an experimental theatre… This scenario is the closest to a conventional play, and satisfied both traditional theatre-goers and modernists who expect Virlana to “deliver” the unexpected… Shevchenko was shown, not as a gilded icon, but as a PERSON who lives like everyone, suffers, experiences the hardship of exile, misses his homeland; he also rejoices and dreams of a little home and family… We hope that Yara will have the opportunity to share its “Bright Stars.” The project  deserves it. Hopefully, theatre –lovers in Chicago will invite them.
Lydia Korsun, Chas I Podii (Chicago), June 30, 2016

The concept of the play wonderful; the acting was amazing. Powerful performances by Sean Eden (Taras Shevchenko) and Jeremy Tardy (Ira Aldridge) brought the characters to life. Maria Pleshkevich portrayed a bubbly 15 year old Katya (the daughter of Count Tolstoy) very well. Shona Tucker’s vocals filled the theater with passion as she played the role of young Ira’s mother. Throughout the play, the actors’ dialogue and actions were accompanied by the beautiful and flawless tones of the bandura played by Julian Kytasty who seamlessly wove together traditional Ukrainian songs with church gospel hymns.  Irena Gramiak, Our Life July, 2016

The students of the Self-Reliance School of Ukrainian Studies in New York City had the unique chance to see a special performance of “Dark Night Bright Stars.” Talia Danysh, the school’s vice-principal, commented: “The fact that no one stirred for the entire length of the performance is a testament to the effectiveness of this brilliant play in capturing the student audience. It was not only educational, but also engaging and different from how Taras Shevchenko is usually portrayed. Students talked about the play for many hours, and I believe they felt a closeness to this Ukrainian hero because they witnessed him as an everyday man struggling for human rights and freedom…. The haunting bandura accompaniment emphasizes the roller coaster of emotions and leaves the audience in an awesome trance.” A student added: “Many of us, especially immigrant groups in New York, can relate to the idea of missing home. Shevchenko missed his home but he still knew he was Ukrainian. Aldridge missed his home, too.” Kristina Lucenko, report Ukrainian Weekly, June 26, 2016


Here is what people who’ve seen the show have said:

“Fantastic Show! Everyone - GO!” Eugene Kuziw

“A real gift on a stormy Sunday afternoon, to learn of an African American who was a well-known Shakespearean actor all over Europe in 1800's and who was a close friend to Taras Shevchenko whom I never really had no connection to until today...... oh my god.......what a life, what two lives...... WONDERFUL SHOW - go see it.”  Shigeko Sara Suga

“It was extraordinary - moving, thought provoking and simply beautiful. Go see the show.” Ronya Lozynskyj

“To me the biggest benefit and advantage of our students seeing this brilliant play was their ability to experience Taras Shevchenko coming to life in the flesh… It showcases Taras's genius as well as his doubts and fears in an understated yet powerful; manner. The haunting accompaniment from the bandura serves to emphasize the roller coaster of emotions and leaves the audience almost in a trance. The fact that no one stirred for the entire length of the play is a testament to the effectiveness of this play in capturing the student audience. The positive reaction to the performance was voiced for many hours by a number of students after the play ended.” Talia Danysh, who accompanied the School of Ukrainian Studies group of students

One of my friends in San Francisco told me he'd seen both “Red Velvet” [a recent play about Ira Aldrich]and your piece and thought yours was the stronger work. Congratulations! I hope to get to see it! Marika Kuzma

“Fantastic production, top gun acting, very moving and insightful. It is a must see play.” Stephan Welhasch

“Congratulations! Great show, moving and beautiful” -- Maria Mykolenko

“The story of a beautiful friendship in difficult times, eloquently acted. Mind blowing bandura by Julian Kystasty. A peak theatre experience. I attended twice and that was not enough.”  Cathy Zadoretzky 

“I love this performance!” Pavlo Terekhov 

“Saw it Saturday - great play! Really enjoyed it.”- Irene Sawchyn 

“Nadia Kizenko and I are proud to be patrons of this amazing production about the meeting of the great Black American Shakespearean actor Ira Aldridge and the former Ukrainian serf turned Ukrainian bard, Taras Shevchenko. Urging all New York area friends to see this wonderful play.”drian Karatnycky

Another must-see play from Yara Arts! Don't miss last performances this coming weekend. This short play is emotional, thought-provoking and saturated with issues of self-identity, slavery/serfdom, race, nationality, censorship, arts, politics and human experience. Bravo!Olya Yarychkivska

Yara Arts Group from La MaMa Experimental Theatre in New York came to Lviv. Yara showed us its own Shevchenko, the Shevchenko who met the famous American tragedian Ira Aldridge in 1858 and created his portrait which today hangs in the Taras Shevchenko National Museum in Kyiv.
               This was not Shevchenko the icon, but a portrayal of Shevchenko as a living, emotional and fierce artist, who wants to create and who also dreams of returning home. Director Virlana Tkacz looked beyond the stereotypes that usually encrust this artist. The memoirs of Katerina Yunge-Tolstoy fell into her hands, allowing her to create a real, unpretentious, but elegant, flower to add to our anniversary bouquet.
As Katerina Yunge-Tolstoy noted, she witnessed the meetings between Taras Shevchenko and Ira Aldridge when she was 14 years old. “They had so much in common: both were pure, honest souls, both were real artists, both had suffered greatly in their youth. One had to hire himself out as a lackey to able to enter the theatre which he loved, but which barred dogs and Negroes. The other was beaten for burning a candle for light when he drew. They could not speak without a translator, but they communicated by singing songs from their own cultures and understood each other.”
In his portrayal of Taras Mykola Shkaraban, who has worked with Yara Arts Group since 1991, managed to avoid the stereotypes and allowed him to touch us, to whisper to us – “It’s me.” His Shevchenko is an artist and poet -- inspired and hungry for knowledge. He dreams of Ukraine. Jeremy Tardy, a young graduate from Julliard, showed us the rich palette of his talent and his wonderfully organic acting, as he transformed into Shakespeare’s Othello as portrayed by the great tragedian.
In Dark Night Bright Stars, the young Katerina Yunge-Tolstoy is played by Maria Pleshkevych with appropriate lightness for a girl, full of childish enthusiasm. Ira’s mother is portrayed by Shona Tucker, who filled the stage space with a powerful energy and a deep voice. Barak Tucker, her 9 year old talented son, also appears on stage.
Special mention must be made of the musical arrangements by Julian Kytasty, which intertwine traditional Ukrainian songs with African American Spirituals. Julian, a third generation bandurist, is on stage throughout the show. His presence works even when he is not playing his bandura and singing. Perfect projections for the show were created by Kyiv artist Waldemart Klyuzko, who had been nominated for a New York Innovative Theatre Award for his work on Yara’s Raven. The set and light design were by Yevhen Kopiyov, the resident designer at the Les Kurbas Theatre Center in Kyiv. New York designer Keiko Obremski did the costumes for the show.
The show has a very warm, cozy family feeling. There is no pathos, no overwhelming acting or directing tricks, but it is full of talent. It is about eternal values, about communication between human beings. They speak different languages, but they really try to understand each other. Both artists also dream of going home, but neither succeeds. Ira Aldridge toured for ten more years and died in Poland. Taras Shevchenko was allowed to visit Ukraine for a few months. Then he was arrested for the third time in 1859 and forced to spend the rest of his life in St. Petersburg. Today we feel he finally has returned, quietly opening the door and inviting his good friend into his Ukraine.
Anastasia Kanarska, Artopinion.blogspot, September 21, 2014.


The poster for Dark Night Bright Stars created by Yara Arts Group from New York which performed at the Les Kurbas Theatre Center in Kyiv, describes the show in two brief sentences. These two sentences indeed describe all the events of the show: “In 1858 the Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko was set free after 10 years imprisonment and returned to St. Petersburg. There he met the great African American actor Ira Aldridge and drew his portrait.” In terms of events on stage, this is really all that happens. But the play of images in the show is so rich that it is impossible to describe the production in a few sentences… it is about the power of words and the power of art.
Ira Aldridge – was an African American born in New York, who in 1831 started to tour Western Europe and eventually also performed in Eastern Europe. His repertoire included mostly Shakespeare; Othello was his most popular part. When he arrived in St. Petersburg in 1858, he met Taras Shevchenko at the home of Count Fyodor Tolstoy. We know about the meetings between the two artists from the diary of Tolstoy’s fourteen year old daughter Kateryna, who served as translator for Aldridge and Shevchenko. She mentions that at one point she no longer needed to translate because the two artists seemed to understand each other without words. This “communication without translation” is at the heart of the show created by Virlana Tkacz.
This communication without translations, paradoxically, places great focus on the word, providing it with great depth and multidimensionality. The characters exchange only a few important words – revealing the multidimensionality of meanings which usually escapes us in ordinary speech. Words like “mama” “Ukraine –Little Russia” “home” “portrait” and “friend” acquire the kind of depth of meaning which can usually only be found in poetry. Our two heroes discover that both their mothers died when they were nine years old, that they both lost their motherland and cannot return “home,” that they both understand what it means to be a slave/serf, a person of lower caste who is the object of derision. They both “speak” in terms of art, and understand what “censorship” means.
Art becomes an additional means of communication. The sensitive selection of poetry by Taras Shevchenko deeply resounds with a contemporary audience in the context of the “discussed” yearning for the homeland. So do Aldridge’s monologues and Shevchenko’s paintings. The main event of the show is creation of Shevchenko’s portrait of Aldridge. This portrait tries to capture both the outer reality and the inner world of the actor, his fears, memories and joys.
Another form of artistic expression is the music played on the bandura by Julian Kytasty, who is always present on stage. The music includes traditional songs (both Ukrainian and African American), as well as spirituals – the sacred folk tradition of African Americans. In the context of the greatly desired but constantly unrealized dream of returning home for both characters the spiritual “I Will Meet You in the City of the New Jerusalem” – in the Heavenly Jerusalem or in Heaven becomes an outstanding moment. This song-promise which is performed by all the actors in harmony becomes the culmination of the show. Afterwards we learn that Shevchenko died in a foreign land a few days before serfdom in abolished in the homeland. And, Ira Aldridge died six years later, shortly before his own planned return home.
Sofia Riabchuk, Kino-teatr (Kyiv) #4, 2014

In Dark Night Bright Stars, a multicultural production that is staged in two languages, director Virlana Tkacz wanted to show how people can communicate beyond language, how they find those threads that can connect heart to heart, soul to soul, mind to mind and create a strong, tight and honest friendship. The Yara artists showed this very successfully, using the poetry of Taras Shevchenko, old church hymns, and excerpts from Shakespeare. The artists included: Jeremy Tardy (Ira), Mykola Shkaraban (Taras), Maria Pleshkevych (Katya) Shona Tucker (mother and vocalist), Julian Kytasty (music and vocals) and 9 year old Barak Tucker who played young Aldridge. In “…Bright Stars” there are moments of real drama and ironic humor. No matter how many times you read Shevchenko’s poetry it still speaks. Jeremy Tardy, a recent graduate of the Julliard School in New York, is talented and resourceful in portraying the sheer depth of Aldridge’s gift. Aldridge was a famous tragedian, but no slouch in comedic roles. When at the end of the show Taras – Mykola Shkaraban completes the portrait we believe that the arts part as real friends.
Nadia Sokolenko, Kultura i zhyttia (Kyiv), May 9, 2014.

PRESS NY Workshop

The simplicity of this story is one of its strengths.  It is an opportunity to focus on the meeting and intersperse it with poetry and song. Taras Shevchenko (Sean Eden) feels an affinity with Ira (Jeremy Tardy) and they become great friends.  They find they have many things in common. Ekaterina (Ms. Pleshkevich) acts as their translator and they bond through facial expressions as well as gestures. 
            The performance includes the poetry of Taras Shevchenko translated by Virlana Tkacz and Wanda Phipps.  One of the poems is “It’s All the Same to Me.”  The subject matter is timely, speaking about Ukraine’s struggles with Russia. Shakespearean monologues from “Othello” and “King Lear” are also important to the piece.  They bring out Jeremy Tardy’s talent as an actor.  Gospel music is sung softly by Ms. Tucker to accentuate the drama.  It is sung in harmony Julian Kytasty’s traditional Ukrainian songs. The painting of the portrait remains the focus of the meeting. The projection of the painting was provided by Waldemart Klyuzko.  Klyuzko created other projections that are displayed on the backdrop of the stage, such as a picture of Taras’s idealized Ukrainian home and idyllic nature scenes.
            “Dark Night Bright Stars” is a strong foundation for a future Yara performance depicting the relationship of the great Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko and the renowned African American actor Ira Aldridge.  Watch for more to come.
Olena Jennings, Ukrainian Weekly, April 27, 2014

Dark Night Bright Stars in La MaMa, New York - June 3-19, 2016
Photos from La MaMa show by: Pavlo Terekhov | Waldemart Klyuzko | Lee Wexler

Dark Night Bright Stars in Ukraine - April 28 - May 11, 2014
photos from: Kyiv | Lviv | Odesa | our visit to Shevchenko Museum in Kyiv | La MaMa workshop in 2014

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