Coming to New York City’s Producers Club Theaters for its World Premiere, the new war-themed play An Albanian, a Serb and the Soldiers takes place in a cellar in downtown Pristina, Kosovo in 1999. Two journalists– “Toni”, an Albanian, and “Dragan”, a Serbian– have opted out of participation in the war by isolating themselves in that aforementioned cellar. Meanwhile, the armed conflict rages on outside their makeshift “safe space”. What happens to these two accidental allies–hungry, desperate and frightened– whose opposing forces are fighting just above ground? New York City audiences will learn the answer to that question when this all new tragicomedy hits the stage for the first time on Friday, July 5th. This breakthrough show, from Honey and Blood Theater, promises to explore the strength of the universal human spirit– which rises above language, ethnicity, religion, class, and more.
A new company, Honey and Blood Theater is the creation of Kosovo-born actor and producer Avni “Vinny” Abazi and his wife, playwright Ibi Abazi, who is the author of An Albanian, a Serb and the Soldiers. Mr. Abazi serves as the play’s Producer and Director. He also plays one of the show’s six characters. Abazi has had over 20 years of experience as an actor, producer and director. He first came to America in 2001 with his 15-episode TV series Life of a Land which was produced with funding of the U.S. government. He lived there until 2008, and eventually moved permanently to the States with his family in 2017. Abazi tells me, “When I first came here, I would just look at the buildings and I felt so small compared to everything that happens here. Now, I feel different. New York is a place of opportunity for everyone. That’s what made me start the company. That’s what made me believe that the competition here makes us better… and stronger. It makes us fight! And that’s what I love about it.” The rest of the cast are Croatian actor Ivica Marc, Serbian-born actor Ivan Kirincic, Albanian-born actor Julian Gjaci, and Montenegro-born American actor Izzy Durakovic. Known to his friends as “Vinny”, Avni Abazi will be known as Vinny also to American audience. He hopes that Honey and Blood Theater will be introducing new audiences in New York City to some unique, fresh, bold, and provocative stories from a distinctly Balkan perspective. Abazi took the time to speak to me about the new play, Honey and Blood Theater, and much more.
JR: Thank you for speaking with me! Congratulations on the upcoming World Premiere of An Albanian, a Serb and the Soldiers on Friday.
VA: My pleasure.
JR: So, first off: Where did the origins of Honey and Blood Theater come from?
VA: I see a lot of great actors coming from Ex-Yugoslavian countries in New York City and they try in all the ways to fit to the American standards of doing business and being part of entertainment world. I tried too. I have gone into a lot of auditions and I tried my best to get roles or direct plays for theaters here. By going to those auditions, you realize that you have transformed yourself to that level that you are not yourself anymore! By trying to be as good as American-born actors, all we get in the end– and that is if we are lucky– is some small speaking roles of bad guys or those roles with Russian or Italian accents.
After a while of doing that I come to a point that “What if we who come from the Balkans get together and bring our interesting, funny, sometime very bizarre life in front of American audience?” My wife and I are in the arts together. We have those plays that we did back in Kosovo, and we were looking for something to identify us after we came here with our kids. There was a tendency to do something called “War Theater” or “Theater of War”– but that was too direct! We believe that what our theater really will bring to the American public are those animal particles that Ingar Bergman calls “human zoo”. Balkan issues are, in a way, very original. In the U.S, when you talk to Americans, they ask us, “Why do you guys fight? You all look the same.” and stuff like that.
JR: (Laughs) That really does sound like something most Americans would say!
VA: We actually do look the same! So, then we came up with another idea. In a lot of the ex-Yugoslavian countries, there is generally a lot of hate and a lot of war– but there is also a lot of love between people. So, we called it “Honey and Blood Theater”. In a way, people who have an idea of what is going on in that part of the world know immediately what issues we are going to treat when we say “Honey & Blood”. We will mostly try to bring authors from Bosnia, Croatia, and Kosovo– because those countries have been battling war. Their people have been fighting. The subjects of our work is connected through that.
JR: It’s a safe bet to say that many Americans have heard about the wars in the Balkans, but don’t know much about that region beyond that… unless they do their own research. What are some things you’d want people to know about the people of the now ex-Yugoslavia?
VA: Yugoslavian culture is very different. We are close to Italy. We call ourselves more “European” than some other countries. The first and second World Wars started in Croatia and Bosnia. The problem is that some of the countries in that part of the world are with America, and some of the counties’ are with Russia. This is the “Cold War” that still exists. Half of the countries of the ex-Yugoslavia are leaning towards the American way, and the other half are leaning towards the Russian way. In Kosovo, we are Albanians. We call ourselves “the 51st American state”. Why? In 1999, Bill Clinton and Tony Blair sent NATO troops to attack Serbia for the genocide they committed in Kosovo. For that reason, we have a street called “Bill Clinton Boulevard” in Kosovo. We have a “George W. Bush Street”. We honor Madeline Albright. We have statues. Our play takes place on the last night of the NATO bombing.
On the other hand, we have Serbia which is very much connected to Russia. So, the international “high” politics push the local politicians to follow those kinds of things on the field. As artists, we try to stay neutral. In our play An Albanian, a Serb and the Soldiers, the characters are both journalists who are running away from war. They are hiding in the basement where they used to work in Kosovo. Another great thing about our play is that there has been some evolvement in the Balkan issue. President Trump has written a public letter to the President of Kosovo and to the President of Serbia, inviting them to discuss a final Kosovan solution.
JR: Oh really? I didn’t know that.
VA: Yes. It’s going on. Kosovo wants to be recognized as a new state. But Serbia wants something else. There are discussions going on to solve the problem. As artists, we want to bring something completely different. The play has two guys– two very peaceful people– hiding and running away from war. As characters, they usually fight for justice. They usually tell the truth of what’s happening in their field because they are journalists. Now, they hide from the justice and the truth, and they run away from war. This is the story that we treat. And these two men are OK in the basement until the soldiers knock on the door. Then, we have a very, very different situation that happens through the soldiers and through those guys. What is good is that the American professors who have read the play say that this story could happen between any people: between Jewish and Palestinian people, between German and French people, between Croatian and Serbian people… You can take any people that fight with another people, take two of them, and the same thing could happen to them. The subject is very universal.
JR: True. War does affect all of us in one way or another– and ultimately, we all die the same, no matter what you look like, or your religion, or your ethnicity, or whether you’re rich or poor! Now, on the subject of New York City: New York City is definitely considered to be the theater capital of the United States, and some would say of the world. Did you consider it a risky move to start a new theater company here?
VA: Very risky!
JR: Among other things, it’s expensive to live and work here!
VA: Very expensive, yeah! But I believe we’ve got a great, funny and interesting story to tell. And it is worth of investing, because we know that we will get the same reaction from audience here as we got back in Kosovo when we did a play over there. It’s a real human story. I believe that a person who see us will bring all his friends to see the play. I know we are new theater and that New York City is really competitive, but I know that the audience will find us.
JR: Yes, it’s very competitive. It’s a double-edged sword. There are a lot of productions and a lot of jobs in New York City, but there are also a lot of actors competing for those jobs too!
VA: Yes. So, because of that, we decided, “Let’s do our own. Let’s create our audience, let’s bring them here, and let’s compete from a different perspective.” My background is 20 years on stage and in movies– so I believe that the American audience, through Honey and Blood Theater, will have the chance to see something different and unique. Our plays go into deep characters and try to treat real issues. The way we work is very professional. The actors we have in the play are very successful people in the U.S., and also very successful back in their home countries: Albania, Croatia, Serbia, Montenegro, and Kosovo. As actors, they are very much into their jobs and they also bring their background here. So, I think it’s very interesting and very fun for the American audience to watch that.
JR: Wow! That’s great to hear. New York audiences, in particular, are always looking for new and exciting stories to be told on stage. Now, a while back we talked about the fear that the Serbian community and the Albanian community living here in the States may fear that the play may take one side over another in the play…
VA: People are worried that this play will take one side over another. But the truth is that we treat the human side of those two guys: their reaction towards the soldiers and towards their nationalities. When you leave at the end of the whole thing, you realize that these are just two people who had the right NOT to fight, who had the right NOT to join the political issues– and even in that right, someone is interfering. In that peaceful way that they are choosing, the soldiers are interfering. This is the point that we pushed as a message. Neither Serbian people or Albanian people should be offended. The funny part is that the Croatian actor is playing the Serbian character, and the Albanian actor from Albania is playing the Kosovan character. None of them are really directly affected by what happened in the play’s historical background. The actors have that distance from the characters they are playing.
JR: Gotcha! So, An Albanian, a Serb and the Soldiers is indeed a play about war. That’s always a challenging subject for the audience. That said, are there any lighthearted or humorous moments in the show?
VA: As a genre, the play is actually a comedy. There’s a lot of humor in it. The situations that the characters go into are very funny. In general, I’d say it’s a tragicomedy with a lot of black humor. The characters speak what they think, because WE want to say things. Politically, we want to attack the politicians: all the sides. But the play doesn’t get heavy to where it gets boring.
JR: I look forward to seeing it. Thank you for speaking with me!
An Albanian, a Serb and the Soldiers runs from Friday, July 5th at 8PM through Sunday, July 14th at 9PM, at The Producers Club Theaters, 358 West 44th Street, New York City. You can purchase tickets here. Visit Honey and Blood Theater’s Facebook page here.