For the past four years, Joan Lipkin has traveled to Belgrade, Serbia every September as a guest of the Civil Rights Defenders, a leading human rights organization in the Western Balkans, to do culture organizing with the LGBTI community as a volunteer.
Two years ago, she started the Queer Café, a series of intentional conversation circles to encourage members of different parts of the community to meet and share. Influenced by the potential of consciousness-raising groups of the second wave of American feminism, Lipkin chronicled her experiences in The Advocate, a leading LGBTI national U.S. publication, in May 2018.
“As a longtime activist and community organizer, my desire was to offer skills and support for a brave population that is in the early stages of this human rights movement,” Lipkin said, “As a playwright, I didn’t initially set out to write a play but the heartfelt desires expressed by Queer Café attendees and their stories were so powerful, I wondered if chronicling that might be helpful for them in advancing human rights.”
Titled The Queer Café: Hear Our Voices from the Balkans, the play is a short docudrama designed to be performed as readers’ theatre or fully staged. The piece contains edited verbatim accounts from both participants at the cafés, as well as conversations at Belgrade’s Pride Info Centre with people from Serbia, Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Albania, Kosovo, Slovenia, and other parts of the region.
The play will be translated into the Serbian language and performed alternately in Serbian and English.
Borisav Matić, a dramaturgy student at Faculty of Dramatic Arts in Belgrade, became involved with The Queer Café as a dramaturg. “I think that the chosen material is great. The confessions of the people are honest, touching, wise, and they give us a thoughtful observation on both the intimate and sociopolitical sides of LGBTI themes. The play is very well structured and I like that the structure follows the path of coming of age (from the first LGBTI emotions, through the coming out phase, to the question of marriage and what do we want for ourselves). It was a touching experience reading it. I think that there's great potential for the show to be great,” he said.
Many Queer Café participants will be seeing the piece come to fruition after multiple years of involvement: “As somebody who took part in the Queer Cafés held during Belgrade's Pride Week in the previous years, it was incredibly important to me having someone putting all of our words into a tangible piece,” said Pavle Menalo, a student of Ethnology and Anthropology at Faculty of Philosophy at University of Belgrade.
“I'm thankful to Joan Lipkin who approached the task without patronizing, a thing some foreign activists tend to do. Although we are becoming louder here in the Balkans regarding LGBTI rights and walls are falling down, still there are big dampers around us, so it's refreshing to get one platform more to express. People have remained silent for too long. Now, the time has come to shout: Hear our voices! It is a collective, common experience shared by all of us who recognize ourselves in the piece.”
Lipkin, who is the recipient of numerous awards including Leadership in Community-based Theatre, a Visionary, Ethical Humanist of the Year, and a Bravely Award, said writing and directing The Queer Café is a fitting way to observe the 30th anniversary of her landmark play, Some of My Best Friends Are. . ., the first piece of original LGBTI theatre produced in Missouri.
Most recently, Lipkin’s adaptation of the Mueller report titled The Mueller Report: Read, Sing, Resist was featured in American Theatre magazine, and she produced After Orlando, a collection of short plays about the Pulse massacre, for the national conference of the Association for Theatre in Higher Education.
“Being of service, using the arts and civic dialogue to cultivate community and enhance people’s creative capacity in the pursuit of human rights is my life’s work,” Lipkin said. “I am excited to offer this play to the Western Balkans community with love and respect.”
The play will be recorded for a podcast in both Serbian and English, and is in talks to be staged at multiple locations in Belgrade, with possibilities for other areas in the region.
“Any time visibility and what it means to be queer is advanced in the Western Balkans, it is a step forward in affirming LGBTI lives are meaningful and deserve respect and dignity,” said Tanya Domi, a scholar on the Balkans and a Columbia University faculty member. “We have found that using the arts and culture to advance human rights and understanding of the LGBTI community is not only invaluable but can also save lives.”