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Actors who fled Mariupol theater bombing stage a play in another Ukrainian city

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Over the weekend, some Ukrainian actors stepped on stage. It was their first performance since Russia's invasion began. They're from the port city of Mariupol. Russian bombs destroyed that city's main theater, despite giant letters on the ground identifying it as a shelter for civilians, including children. Now several actors who survived the bombing are staging a play. NPR's Joanna Kakissis reports from Uzhhorod, Ukraine.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: It's opening night for the play "Cry Of A Nation." The cast walks into the spotlight. One actor recites a poem by Vasyl Stus, the Ukrainian writer who died at age 47 in a Soviet labor camp in 1985.

(SOUNDBITE OF LIUDMYLA KOLOSOVYCH PLAY, "CRY OF A NATION")

IGOR KYTRYSH: (As Vasyl Stus, speaking Ukrainian).

KAKISSIS: The play's about Vasyl Stus' sacrifices for Ukrainian culture. And it's also about what Ukrainians are sacrificing today to keep their culture safe from Russia's attacks. "Cry Of A Nation" premiered four months after the actors' home theater in Mariupol was bombed.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KAKISSIS: The grim anniversary hung over the cast as they rehearsed. Actor and singer Vira Lebedynska barely escaped the bombing.

VIRA LEBEDYNSKA: (Through interpreter) I remember stepping over dead bodies as I ran out. I remember all of these explosions, these bombings. They wouldn't stop. And I realized, the Russians want to destroy the city, and especially the heart of it - the most beautiful part, the theater.

KAKISSIS: She saw a teenage girl and her family clinging to each other as the theater crumbled. Lebedynska and a colleague raced out of the collapsing building.

LEBEDYNSKA: (Through interpreter) We ran out and kept running until we reached the beach. We saw dead people buried in the sand there. It felt like the end of the world.

KAKISSIS: She escaped from Mariupol. Displaced by war, she moved from city to city in Ukraine.

LEBEDYNSKA: (Through interpreter) I was barely alive - not thinking about my future, about anything. And then Liudmyla called and said, do you want to work again? And I was one of the first people from the Mariupol troupe who said yes.

KAKISSIS: Liudmyla Kolosovych is the Mariupol theater’s artistic director. She says Russians destroyed the Mariupol theater's building but not its talent.

LIUDMYLA KOLOSOVYCH: (Through interpreter) I watch these actors, and I think these are the very best. They are so powerful, so good at what they do, and I'm working with them.

KAKISSIS: She says she and the actors wrote "Cry Of A Nation" together after reading Vasyl Stus' collected letters and poems.

KOLOSOVYCH: (Through interpreter) He died for Ukraine. He died for Ukrainian culture. And he did it all so Ukraine could have a future.

(SOUNDBITE OF LIUDMYLA KOLOSOVYCH PLAY, "CRY OF A NATION")

KYTRYSH: (As Vasyl Stus, speaking Ukrainian).

KAKISSIS: Kolosovych cast Igor Kytrysh in the main role, as Vasyl Stus.

KYTRYSH: (Through interpreter) When we ended up here in Uzhhorod, we realized how lucky we were to see anyone from the Mariupol theater alive and unharmed because some of our colleagues didn't make it.

KAKISSIS: Kytrysh is thinking about those colleagues as he walks into the spotlight on the night of the premiere.

(SOUNDBITE OF LIUDMYLA KOLOSOVYCH PLAY, "CRY OF A NATION")

KYTRYSH: (As Vasyl Stus, speaking Ukrainian).

LEBEDYNSKA: (As Iryna Stus, singing in Ukrainian).

KAKISSIS: In one dramatic scene, Vasyl Stus wastes away in a Soviet labor camp. And his mother, played by Vira Lebedynska, peers into the audience with wide eyes that glisten with her own pain.

(SOUNDBITE OF LIUDMYLA KOLOSOVYCH PLAY, "CRY OF A NATION")

LEBEDYNSKA: (As Iryna Stus, singing in Ukrainian).

KAKISSIS: The audience weeps, too.

(APPLAUSE)

KAKISSIS: "Cry Of A Nation" ends with the poet's call to fight for Ukraine. The audience erupts into cheers and a standing ovation.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Speaking Ukrainian).

KAKISSIS: Vira Lebedynska holds a bouquet of flowers and trembles. Being on stage is a miracle, she says, and a reminder, too, of what's lost.

Joanna Kakissis, NPR News, Uzhhorod, Ukraine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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