HARTFORD, Conn. – They were discovered by a New York Times photo essay which documented nine Ukrainian children performing a play in a bomb shelter in Lviv, Ukraine, two months after Russia launched its full-scale war on Ukraine on February 24.
In the middle of a war, the group decided to put on a play.
Terry Greiss, executive director and co-founder of the Irondale Center in Fort Greene, N.Y., quickly concluded he wanted to bring that play and the children to Brooklyn. Three months later, the young Ukrainian actors and their guardians landed in New York.
The play, “Mom on Skype,” tells the true stories of Ukrainian “social orphans,” children who have been separated from their parents by forces other than death. The play was finalized right before Russia invaded Ukraine and the premiere was scheduled for early March. The war’s onset created chaos and led to an abrupt change in plans.
The play’s director, Oleh Oneshchak, an arts teacher turned active-duty soldier, was approached at the end of March by a friend who suggested reviving the play and staging it in the bomb shelter of his business in Lviv. Mr. Oneshchak and his wife, Mariia, managed to round up the group of actors, aged 10-14, for rehearsals and a performance.
The stories of “Mom on Skype” are based on the youngsters’ true-life experiences. There are seven narratives from seven children that tell the stories of how their parents would leave them and travel through Europe to earn money. Most of the stories do not have happy endings. The children attempt to tell the story about their life in a positive manner, feigning happiness to hide their parents’ absence.
The underlining message of the play is that parents do not have to make lots of money to give their children gifts for their happiness – the most important gift they can give their children is their physical presence.
The war with Russia changed the play’s context, reassessing the importance and value of families being together.
The play was finally staged at the end of April with Mr. Oneshchak taking time away from his army duties whenever possible to assist with rehearsals. The group managed to raise funds for the production and for Ukraine’s Armed Forces. Shortly after the performance, Mr. Oneshchak was contacted by Mr. Greiss, who proposed bringing the troupe to Brooklyn. The director, the actors and their families were thrilled beyond belief.
Money was raised for travel expenses to fly first to Poland, then to the U.S. It took the personal involvement of New York Sen. Chuck Shumer and Rep. Hakeem Jeffries to secure the necessary visa requirements.
Ms. Oneshchak, the eight young actors and two chaperones enjoyed music and sunshine at a performing arts sleepaway camp in Connecticut. The Ukrainian youngsters were quick to make friends with American children at the summer camp, singing, acting and performing, gaining much cultural enrichment. Ms. Oneshchak spent some time teaching the American campers Ukrainian songs and select words and phrases in her native language.
The actors performed their play in Ivoryton, Conn.; Yonkers and Brooklyn, N.Y.; Jenkintown, Pa.; Brookline, Mass.; and Hartford, Conn.
Mr. Oneshchak, being an enlisted soldier in Ukraine’s armed forces, did not receive permission to leave his country and thus could not join his family and group of actors in the U.S. He summed up his reasons for wanting to leave his native land and military commitment in the middle of a war with the following statement given to Brooklyn Paper’s Kirstyn Brendlen.
“There are many actors and professions of culture who are in the army right now, who are fighting. But at the same time, there’s a need for people who will go abroad and who will tell [the world more]about what is happening [in Ukraine],” he said.
The play raises the topic of social orphanhood as a result of labor migration and, more broadly, its delves into the issue of a communication gap between parents and their children. Since Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, the play has evolved and has provided audiences with different interpretations of the content.
The teenagers who were preparing and rehearsing for the play back in January were very much affected by the onset of the armed conflict. When they heard of the opportunity to take part in the play, there was a desire to somehow assist the Ukrainian military’s mission of achieving peace in their homeland. The eight Ukrainian youngsters perform their play and raise funds for the Ukrainian Armed Forces with an ultimate goal of purchasing a fighter jet to better protect the heavens above Ukraine.
Finale in Hartford
On a mid-August Friday evening, nearly 150 Ukrainians from the greater Hartford, Conn., community gathered at the Ukrainian National Home for a final U.S. performance of “Mom on Skype.” Those attending were greeted at the hall entrance area by eight Ukrainian youngsters singing Ukrainian songs. Once seated inside the hall, a most original and entertaining theatrical show captivated the audience for well over 90 minutes.
Following a few brief musical pieces accompanied by keyboard, accordion and a drum, as well as a couple of snippets of children addressing the absence of their parents, Khrystyna Hniedko performed the first narrative, which was told from the perspective of a girl named Sofia, who lives with a neighbor but takes some solace in her mother’s available status indicator on Skype.
Valeriia Khozhempa inhabits one of a group of left-behind children who see themselves as the “Kings of villages and pastures,” although others view them less generously.
Margarita Kuzma spun a tale of longing to investigate the house of a frightened neighbor and his mother. Hanna Oneshchak related the tale of a girl whom the other children regard as using tears and a pretty face to get what she wants, which is to be part of their pack. Sofiia Goy and Anastasiia Mysiuha play sisters, one of whom is a dreamer who enjoys choosing imagined families from among people passing through their town.
Cats infuse Nikol Bodiuk’s narrative, from its comic prologue to its account of a boy who lives with his declining grandmother and fantasizes about impressing his mother by training a kitten or maybe a whole troupe of cats, to perform for her if and when she returns. In this section of the performance, there was a recitation of a humorous poem by seven-year-old Oleksii Oneshchak, pulled off with impressive speed.
Most of “Mom on Skype” is in Ukrainian with English subtitles. The production included short musical interludes that divided the narratives, allowing all eight cast members to be featured.
The show concluded with a patriotic, pro-peace song written and performed, mostly in English, by 12-year-old Hanna Oneshchak, who combined passionate delivery with technical expertise. The audience was quite moved by this portion of the show, which underlined the need to continue supporting Ukraine.
“Mom on Skype” was truly a singular example of the ways that theater can connect people and change lives.
The event collected well over $5,000 for the youngsters’ ambitious goal of purchasing a fighter jet for the Ukrainian military.
Granted 10-year visas to the United States, Ms. Oneshchak and her ensemble of actors and assistants promised a return engagement in 2023 depending on the situation in Ukraine a year from now.