‘An active social act’: the Ukrainian playwright paying tribute to her mother on stage

For a year Sasha Denisova didn’t tell her mother, Olga, who lives in Ukraine, that she had written a play about her. When director Yury Urnov made plans to stage it in the US, Denisova vowed to herself every month: “I need to tell my mama. I need to tell my mama. I need to tell my mama.”

Finally, once Denisova arrived in Washington DC, 82-year-old Olga posed the question: what was she doing there? “I told her, ‘Mama, dear, please don’t worry. I wrote a play about you and myself. I tried to do a good job with this. This play is both factual but also fantastic. In this play you, Mama, kill Putin with a jar of pickles. If you want, I will send the play for you to read.’”

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There were six minutes of silence. Denisova wondered: “Oh my God, what’s going on?” Eventually, her mother responded: “It’s really hot in here. I’m going to make stuffed peppers and we have the fourth air raid of the day. We’re fine.” But some days later, Denisova’s mother asked her to send a photo of the actor portraying her and liked what she saw.

The world premiere of My Mama & the Full-Scale Invasion opened over the weekend at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre in downtown Washington, just a mile from the Congress where some politicians are going wobbly on supporting Ukraine war’s against Russian aggression. It is directed by Moscow-born Urnov, co-artistic director of the Wilma Theater in Philadelphia, which coproduced the show.

Based on Denisova’s WhatsApp correspondence with her mother, the play finds Olga (Holly Twyford), who has lived in Kyiv her entire life, thrust into increasingly fantastical situations: strategising with President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, striking Russian drones with jars of pickles, flying a fighter jet to bomb the Kremlin and debating with God.

Sitting at a table in the Woolly Mammoth’s lobby and speaking in Russian, with Urnov, 47, acting as interpreter, 48-year-old Denisova recalls: “I was writing some notes from the very start or recording things that she was telling me or just saving her messages. Most of the messages start with the sentence, ‘Don’t worry, we’re alive.’

“But when Mama went international in her writing, when she started appealing to Emmanuel Macron and Olaf Scholz, when she started calling Vladimir Putin a Ruscist bastard scum, I started feeling OK, she is on this level where it needs to become a play.”

A playwright, director and screenwriter, Denisova was born in Kyiv and lived there until the age of 30. She worked at various theatre companies in Russia and trained at the Royal Court in London. When war broke out in Ukraine in February last year, Denisova immediately fled Moscow for Poland and all her productions in Russia were shut down.

Her first reaction was to think of Nazi Germany’s assault on the Soviet Union, particularly Ukraine, during the second world war. “This parallel was in my brain immediately because that’s almost on a mythological level,” she says.

“My mother was born on the very day when the Germans were bombing so, when I told her to go to the bomb shelter, the first thing she said was: ‘I’m not going there. I was born there.’ That gave the start to our ongoing fight because she didn’t let me come and take her out and, as you will see in the play, this is a woman of a strong character, as all Ukrainian women are.

“It wasn’t about going there and evacuating some helpless creature. That was her position: she’s staying in Ukraine together with Zelenskiy and to protect her land from Putin. She thinks she’s sort of a decision-making centre, that she’s an active participant in this war. Mama thinks that my nervous system is not strong enough to survive being in Kyiv while her nervous system is good and prepared for this challenge.”

Her mother, a retired construction engineer, lives with a husband 20 years her junior who also appears as a character in the play. Olga’s ageing knees have confined her to her apartment, where she likes to cook complicated Ukrainian dishes then sit composing letters to her only child.

Denisova says: “If you read even a couple of pages of the play you’ll see her fierce style of writing. Even within one sentence it will be stuffed peppers she is cooking and the rocket terror and Zelenskiy and Putin and Macron and Scholz and Biden. She’s communicating to each of them as if they’re close friends.

“She gives advice to all the world leaders about how Ukraine needs to be supported, which particular kinds of weapons it needs right now. My mother says we need Joe Biden to finally give us the air fleet; we need F-16s as soon as possible. There is a scene in the production where Mama hosts Joe Biden and serves the stuffed peppers for him but also makes him sign the new package of military support.”

Denisova has mined family stories before. Her father died from gangrene when she was 25 and became the subject of her play Batman vs Brezhnev. Her ex-husband volunteered to fight for Ukraine’s territorial defence forces and was last seen near Bakhmut – she now feels compelled to write a play about him too.

Does writing help her deal with the emotions? “I won’t call this effect therapeutic,” she says. “The emotions don’t end. It’s not like you leave these emotions through and they’re done if you’re doing a piece. I’m sitting here watching the rehearsals and I’m recognising my mum on stage. She looks very much and behaves very much like my mum and I feel the waves of emotion cover me, so that’s not exactly therapy. I look at doing a play like this as an active social act.”

Denisova has written and staged three other plays about the war: Six Ribs of Anger, about the fate of Ukrainian refugees in Europe; The Hague, an account of a tribunal against Putin and his gang that takes place in the imagination of a Ukrainian girl from Mariupol; and Bakhmut, a story of two women who mourn the same man killed in the conflict.

Both she and her mother are fans of Zelenskiy. “He’s a stunning example of the presidency who walked into this war and took all the responsibility, deciding to stay in Kyiv and fight. He became the real leader inside the country and became the diplomatic ambassador and guarantor for Ukraine receiving weaponry from the west. His international speeches are stunning.

“We are trying in this play and this production to be part of this diplomatic mission, to build a dialogue with the countries of Europe and United States of America, to tell the story of Ukraine, to tell the story that’s based on a simple fact: that people who live there are similar as you are here with the rich European history.

“My family resided in Kyiv since the beginning of the 19th century. Mama still lives in the same district where our family house used to be. Hopefully it’s very understandable for American audiences: the idea of protecting your native piece of land with weapons in your arms.”

Denisova is proud of the resistance her compatriots have shown against all odds and puts it at the heart of My Mama & the Full-Scale Invasion. “My people, my nation is showing amazing examples of humanity and these examples will probably stay in history. It’s hard to wrap your head around from the historical moment we are living through right now because we don’t know how soon the war will be over.”

She describes how, in her mind’s eye, she can see indelible photographs of the war: an older man using his body to shield his grandchild as he carries the baby through occupied areas; a “Madonna of Kyiv” who, in the contemporary hoodie dress, hides her baby in the Kyiv underground railway and breast-feeds during an air raid.

“The process of the normalisation of the war is happening, also in Ukraine itself. We get used to it and we’re seeing more of these pictures every day. This is the nation that survives even with some humour,” Denisova says.

“For example, after one of the air raids and bombings, I called my friend and said the house right next to where you live was bombed: are you safe? And she’s like, ‘Oh, we heard it when we were sleeping. We knew it had hit something right behind us so we just turned on the other side and went back to sleep.’ It’s kind of impossible to imagine. But one certainly should do art about that, theatre about that, write books about that.”

Denisova adds: “In this case, when the author is Ukrainian and is telling the story of her country going through the war, if there are even a few people in the audience stunned by how similar these people are to the lives they lead, that would be a big victory. Plus, maybe we’ll get more weapons.”