Western Balkans

Qendra Multimedia’s ‘55 Shades of Gay’ Grapples with Social Reform in Kosovo

In March, Qendra Multimedia of Kosovo presented the North American premiere of 55 Shades of Gay: Balkan Spring of Sexual Revolution at the La MaMa Experimental Theater Club in New York City. Written by Jeton Neziraj and directed by Blerta Neziraj, the raucous new play uses provocative, cutting-edge theater to address continuing social exclusion and democratic challenges in Kosovo and the Balkans.

At the core of the play is a gay couple who apply for a marriage license in a provincial town in Kosovo, where same-sex marriage is permitted under the constitution. In pursuit of their union, the couple encounters not only stubborn government clerks and whispering neighbors, but even a united front of clergymen who have set aside their religious differences to try to block the application. Meanwhile, the town seeks to stay in the good graces of a visiting European Union representative.

During the play’s 2017 premiere in Kosovo, police were stationed at the door of the theater in light of concerns about the safety of the production crew and the audience.

The recent East Village run remained edgy. In its review of the show, Broadway World writes, “At times grim, grotesque but consistently gripping, the show’s sights and sounds don't only push the envelope, they lick it.” The review also notes the innovative use of lighting, multimedia effects, and sound design to heighten the tension of the script, incorporating “a braided tangle of neon lights, sultry choreography, gender fluidity, anthropomorphism, and primal animal sounds.”

Playwright Neziraj says that his inspiration for 55 Shades of Gay came from the public reaction in Kosovo to a newspaper report of the country’s first same-sex marriage application. He explained that the social media response was “predictably homophobic” and that officials from the town denied such an application had even existed. Neziraj noticed that, whether or not the authorities’ claim was truthful, “they seemed to be so triggered by the mere suggestion of a same-sex marriage application being made on their watch.”

Qendra Multimedia is a cultural organization based in Prishtina, Kosovo. It is considered to be one of the most interesting and provocative theatre companies in South Eastern Europe. Qendra was founded in 2002 by a group of young artists aiming to create an alternative form of art production to address political and social issues with clarity and imagination. Artistic exchanges with international partners are crucial in the work of Qendra Multimedia. www.qendra.org

The U.S. Premiere of 55 Shades of Gay at La MaMa was also made possible with support from the Trust for Mutual Understanding, the Open Society Foundations, and the Republic of Kosovo.