The Great Shame. A Play about Roma Slavery

A young Roma confronts her brother, a priest, with the truth that the Romanian Orthodox church were enslavers for hundreds of years.

Alina Șerban is a Roma actress, director, and trailblazer when it comes to bringing the topic of slavery on stage and in film. After studying in the UK, she returned to Romania to write The Great Shame, a play to which the Romanian Ministry of Culture reacted by asking her to remove the term ”slavery”. The excerpt below is a scene from the play.

This article is part of a project called The Way of the Land, a journalistic initiative documenting the impact of 500 years of Roma slavery on relationships between Romanians and Roma today.

Magda, a young Roma who has started studying Roma history in college, confronts her brother, Matei, a priest, about the truths that the Romanian Orthodox Church refuses to acknowledge – such as being owning ensclaved Roma for hundreds of years.

MAGDA: Do you remember how you used to trick me when we were small? Telling me that you’ll give me pie with…

MATEI: Tar and suffer-fries. And you were so glad… Oh, little sister!

MAGDA: If my thesis turns good, will you finally get me that pie?

MATEI: Double serving.

MAGDA: One, two, three is this on, let’s see. (Testing an audio-recorder.)

MATEI: Oh, so you’re doing field research, alright, let me see how I can help you, Miss master student, I am listening!

MAGDA: I will start asking you some questions, and you, “Sir”, you will have to answer, do you agree?

MATEI: Yes, I agree. If it turns well, I’ll get you that pie.

MAGDA: You, Sir, believe that the soul exists, don’t you?

MATEI: Obviously…

MAGDA: If you met your ancestors, what would you ask them?

MATEI: If my soul were to see and call to all my ancestors, I would be glad we are all together and doing God’s work, that we are all in God’s Kingdom.

MAGDA: What would you ask them?

MATEI: What would I ask them? Maybe… what are their stories, their advice, probably (happy) I would thank them.

MAGDA: You’d thank them?

MATEI: Yes… because they made it possible, through the grace of God, for me, and for you, to exist.

MAGDA: Do you think it’s important for us to look at our past, to think of the ancestors, to connect with their stories so that, actually, we can connect with our own stories?

MATEI: Yes, I think it’s important.

Photo from the play „The Great Shame”, directed by Alina Șerban. The background text reads: Who is telling the history?

MAGDA: What does the Church mean to you?

MATEI: (Very enthusiastically) The Church, to me?! It means everything. It means, how should I put it, the essence of all of life’s concerns, the utmost duty that I must fulfill.

MAGDA: At the Theological Seminary, did you have the chance to also study the history of the Romanian Orthodox Church?

MATEI: Yes, yes of course.

MAGDA: When you attended these courses, did you ever hear about the slavery of the Roma in the Romanian principalities, and about the slaves owned by the monasteries?

MATEI: Roma slavery?

MAGDA: Yes, you know in Moldavia and Wallachia, until 1856, Roma people were slaves either owned by the state, or the on the lands of boyars, and there were also monastery slaves, on the lands of monasteries. Did they ever talk to you about that?

MATEI: Not especially, no…

MAGDA:… you don’t remember anything especially?

MATEI: No, not about Roma slavery, we didn’t… I don’t think we talked about it.

MAGDA: You never encountered this topic?

MATEI: No.

MAGDA: No… and this is the first time you hear about it?

MATEI: Well, there would be a lot to discuss about these Roma but… we never had…

MAGDA: Do you think that, if you were to find out things you didn’t know about, it might change in some way your opinion of the institution of the Church and the history of the Church?

MATEI: (Enthusiastically) The church, as an institution, in its theology, cannot be wrong…

MAGDA: Well, and if we think of your ancestors and imagine they were slaves precisely on the land of a monastery, what would you ask them?

MATEI: Of course I wouldn’t ask them what were their torments or their suffering, if such experiences existed. If they suffered, it’s also because they had a certain… reputation and that’s how things were back then. I think they should be proud because, look, one of them ended up as a servant of the Church.

MAGDA: Do you think the Romanian Orthodox Church, the state should speak openly about the past Roma slavery / should apologize for Roma slavery?

MATEI: I don’t know whether… Magda, what’s this thesis of yours about?

MAGDA: 500 years of Roma slavery. The biggest slave owner was the institution of the Church. I want to find out whether the state and the church ever considered issuing an official apology.

MATEI: Magda, but how…

MAGDA: Please respond! Do you think we should know and accept our past?

MATEI: I don’t think that we should reopen old sores and if you’re talking about official apologies, there were others who owned slaves too, not the only Church.

MAGDA: So what is your opinion, then, that it should be everyone apologizing, or in this case, no-one?

MATEI: Magda, I know you like stories, history, but there is nothing to talk about on this subject. Why didn’t you pick something nice, like the history of religions, now that would have made Father Grigorie so happy.

MAGDA: But my topic is connected to history and religion, too.

MATEI: Please take me seriously, Magda, and let’s not end up disagreeing, especially us, given our past.

MAGDA: What do you mean?

MATEI: Turn off the recorder.

MAGDA: I beg you, don’t…

MATEI: I beg YOU, do not besmirch the memory of Father Grigorie, who was, for both of us…

MAGDA: But this has nothing to do with… I am talking about an institution who owned other people as if they were objects, like slaves, and this probably happened with my and your ancestors.

MATEI: You have to realize that it’s not ok, what you’re doing. I want us to be close, I want us to be like brother and sister, I want us to be together, to be there for each other, Magda.

MAGDA: Me too!

MATEI: But I cannot be there for someone rebelling against God.

MAGDA: Matei, this is our history, not only of the Roma, but of Romanians too. Do you know that it is the longest slavery in the world, Matei?!

MATEI: Magda, you’re hurting me. Why are taking revenge on me?

MAGDA: I’m not! I talked to historians, sociologists and I also needed to talk to a priest.

MATEI: Neither me nor Father Grigorie is to blame for what had happened, with the house or with you Magda. I am not the one to blame that Father only took me out of the children’s home, but he still helped you, and now you are just making this slaves up.

MAGDA: Between free people and gypsy slaves, marriage cannot be officiated.

MATEI: That’s enough, please.

MAGDA: The children born of a gypsy slave woman have to share, according to the laws, the fate of their mother.

MATEI: That’s not happening today, anymore!

MAGDA: The marriage between two slaves is not allowed unless granted with the will and permission of their owners.

MATEI: Stop! I had enough, Magda! Don’t you understand that I don’t have anything else? For me the Church means everything, why do you want to draw me away from it? I cannot be there for you, I have to defend God and the institution I am serving, and the man who was a father to me.

MAGDA: But, Matei?

MATEI: These boundaries do not exist, between them, Romanians, and us, Roma, and neither does this discrimination exist anymore, so leave me alone with the past because there’s no use for it.

MAGDA: Come on, remember how they used to call us “crows” at school, and we would both cry.

MATEI: Yes, Magda, but that was a long time ago, and when you didn’t know how to write, who helped you? A Romanian priest! Who kept us fed!

MAGDA: Yes, he gave us food…

MATEI: And was like a father to us.

MAGDA: To you, he was, let’s not mix up things.

MATEI: I’m sorry for everything but… It hurts me to tell you this, but please don’t come here anymore, I cannot let you talk like this in my house.

MAGDA: (Takes a few steps to leave) Pardon? Do you remember the only time when you came to visit me at the children’s home, for my birthday? It was the only time when you visited me. You brought me a denim jacket and a red rose. I was so happy. Maybe I looked for a mother, father, maybe sometimes sister in you. I am glad you found all of these in Father Grigorie.

MATEI: He was all of that for both of… (he’s interrupted)

MAGDA: The only thing that I am grateful for to father Grigorie is that he took care of my brother. I waited for you to visit me again there in the home, where I could never call Mrs. Stefi “mother”.

MATEI: Magda…

MAGDA: My God, I thought that you’ll be proud of me. That if I write a thesis about our ancestors…

MATEI: Please try to understand that…

MAGDA: You are that voice from my childhood, telling me I can’t do it. I’m sorry, I won’t bother you again, I won’t embarrass you anymore.

MATEI: You’re truly ungrateful, because the Father was… (He’s interrupted)

MAGDA: No, you are a hypocrite who’s acting like a whitewashed Romanian. How would your beloved parishioners react if they found out you too are just a Gypsy on their land???


This article was also published in print in DoR #46, as part of a series curated by Margareta (Magda) Matache, the director of the Roma Program at Harvard and a Roma rights activist. Because healing the wounds of the past has to start with recognition and reconciliation.

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