Mihaela Dragan smiles as she sits with director Mihai Lukacs, before a show in Gheorgheni, Romania, October 1, 2015. REUTERS/Andreea Campeanu
Mihaela Dragan poses for a photograph before starting work on a forum play in Valea Seaca, Romania, April 16, 2016. The play features women in the Roma community addressing issues of domestic violence, migration and racism. REUTERS/Andreea Campeanu
(L to R) Narghita Dinu, Anca Nica, Mihaela Dragan and Cipi Dinu talk after a performance of Povestea Cristinei (Cristina's story), a forum theatre play directed by Dragan, and organised by Roma feminist NGO E-Romnja, at the home of Narghita Dinu, in Valea Seaca, Romania, April 16, 2016. REUTERS/Andreea Campeanu
Audience members including Roma flowers sellers, wait to watch a play featuring Giuvlipen actress Zita Moldovan, together with other Romanian-Roma actors, at the Jewish Theatre in Bucharest, Romania, October 30, 2017. The play tells the story of Bucharest's most famous flower seller and entrepreneur, Bambina. REUTERS/Andreea Campeanu
Mihaela Dragan waits to be interviewed at a local TV station in Bucharest, Romania, October 31, 2017. She is being interviewed about her work and her recent trip to New York where she was nominated for an award. REUTERS/Andreea Campeanu
Elena Duminica braids Mihaela Dragan's hair before performing in their play "Gadjo Dildo", during the "Roma Theatre is not Nomadic" tour, in Cluj-Napoca, Romania, November 5, 2017. REUTERS/Andreea Campeanu
Young people attend the forum theatre play "Cristina's Story", directed by Romanian-Roma actress Mihaela Dragan and organised by feminist Roma NGO E-Romnja, in Valea Seaca, Romania, April 16, 2016. The play, in which people from the community also act, addresses issues related to domestic violence, poverty, racism and the challenges of living and working in Western Europe. REUTERS/Andreea Campeanu
Musician Stefan Botezatu from the band Poetrip, prepares before performing in the play Blue/Orange, from the Romanian feminist Roma theatre company Giuvlipen, in Sfantu Gheorghe, Romania, September 19, 2017. REUTERS/Andreea Campeanu
Narghita Dinu (C) rehearses for a forum theatre play called "Cristina's Story", directed by Romanian-Roma actress Mihaela Dragan and organised by Roma feminist NGO E-Romnja, in Valea Seaca, Romania, April 16, 2016. The story addresses issues related to domestic violence, poverty, racism and the challenges of living and working in Western Europe. REUTERS/Andreea Campeanu
Romanian Roma actress Zita Moldovan rehearses for the the play "Who Killed Szomna Grancsa?", in Sfantu Gheorghe, Romania, September 20, 2017. REUTERS/Andreea Campeanu
The Teatrul National Targu Mures (Targu Mures National Theatre), (C-R), where Romanian feminist Roma theatre company Giuvlipen performed two plays during their tour "Roma Theatre is not Nomadic", is pictured in Targu Mures, Romania, November 8, 2017. REUTERS/Andreea Campeanu
Paul Dunca (R), Zita Moldovan (C) and Elena Duminica (L) wait backstage before their show "Gadjo Dildo" at Green Hours jazz cafe in Bucharest, Romania, February 5, 2016. REUTERS/Andreea Campeanu
Romanian-Roma actresses Zita Moldovan (R), Mihaela Dragan (C) and Elena Duminica (L) perform in their play "Gadjo Dildo" in Bucharest, Romania, April 8, 2016. REUTERS/Andreea Campeanu
Romanian-Roma actress Zita Moldovan sits on couch in the studio, during a break from her TV show called "I Was Born in Romania, Too", in Bucharest, Romania, August 25, 2017. The show tries to break stereotypes about Roma people. REUTERS/Andreea Campeanu
Romanian-Roma actress Zita Moldovan prepares to record her TV show called "I Was Born in Romania, Too", in Bucharest, Romania, August 25, 2017. The show tries to break stereotypes about Roma people. REUTERS/Andreea Campeanu
Roma actresses Zita Moldovan (R), Elena Duminica (C) and Mihaela Dragan (L), prepare to rehearse for a play during the tour, "Roma Theatre is not Nomadic", in the city of Sfantu Gheorghe in Romania, November 4, 2017. The tour is part of a campaign to have a Roma State Theatre. REUTERS/Andreea Campeanu
Mihaela Dragan talks to friends after performing in Cluj-Napoca, Romania, on November 5th, 2017. REUTERS/Andreea Campeanu
Romania-Roma actress Mihaela Dragan (C), lays on a couch with her mother (R) and grandmother (L), during a family visit in Constanta, Romania, December 7, 2017. REUTERS/Andreea Campeanu
Actress Mihaela Dragan (L) and musician Elena Albu take part in a rehearsal for a poetry night in La Tiganci (At the Gypsies') restaurant, in Bucharest, Romania, March 6, 2016. REUTERS/Andreea Campeanu
Romania-Roma actress Mihaela Dragan hugs her nephew during a visit to her sister's house, in Constanta, Romania, December 6, 2017. REUTERS/Andreea Campeanu
Mihaela Dragan rehearses before performing in the play "Who Killed Szomna Grancsa?", at the Jewish Theatre in Bucharest, Romania, November 10, 2017. REUTERS/Andreea Campeanu
Zita Moldovan (R), Mihai Lukacs (C) and Paul Dunca (L) smoke cigarettes in the grounds of the independent theatre, Reactor during the tour "Roma Theatre is not Nomadic", in Cluj-Napoca, Romania, November 5, 2017. REUTERS/Andreea Campeanu
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CLUJ, Romania, Jan 22 (Reuters) - Inside the grey walls of an independent theater in the northwest Romanian city of Cluj, Roma actress Elena Duminica braided the hair of her colleague Mihaela Dragan ahead of their show.
As she braided, the theater tested the lights for the play, "Gadjo Dildo," a cabaret-like performance inspired by real stories about the sexism and racism Roma women are often subject to in Romania.
The title is a play on words from a 1997 film, "Gadjo Dilo," which means "Crazy Stranger" in Romani, the language of the 2 million Roma in the country, around a 10th of the population.
It is the first play staged by the Romanian feminist Roma theater company Giuvlipen, which Dragan co-founded in 2014 because, she saw no alternative for the way Roma people were represented in the arts.
"We advocate for Roma artists to have a voice, because Roma art was pretty marginalized and never valued, always stereotyped. I think this is our role, to make Roma art mainstream and cool, so that people come to our shows and talk about them."
There was no word for feminism in Romani, so Dragan and her colleagues created one -- Giuvlipen. The troupe has staged performances inspired by real events that deal with discrimination, arranged under-age marriages, lack of access to education, mental illness and Roma LGBT issues.
The Roma are Europe's largest ethnic minority. Out of an estimated 10-12 million, more than half live in the EU, which Romania joined in 2007, and many are victims of prejudice and social exclusion.
In Romania, the World Bank has estimated nine out of 10 Roma live in severe material deprivation, most of them children, lacking access to basic education and healthcare.
Social inclusion programs and anti-discrimination laws are in place, but racism against the minority goes back centuries in the country, where Roma were kept as slaves by monasteries or local overlords until the 19th century.
Roughly 25,000 Roma were deported from Romanian-controlled territory during World War Two, when the country was an ally of Nazi Germany. Almost half of them died.
Giuvlipen tells these stories, while trying to show Roma culture is "alive, contemporary, vanguardist, progressive," said Dragan, who also acts at Berlin's Maxim Gorki Theatre.
Throughout the fall, Giuvlipen - based in capital Bucharest - toured the country under the headline "Roma Theatre is not Nomadic," campaigning to open a state-funded Roma theater.
Romania funds theaters for its Jewish, Hungarian and German minorities. Giuvlipen has yet to make a formal request for funding, but have invited city hall officials to their shows.
"There is need for contemporary Roma culture, because people just know the sensational things they see on TV," said Giuvlipen member and actress Zita Moldovan. "A Roma theater could tell stories, it would be useful for both us and the Romanian population," she said.
(Additional reporting and writing by Luiza Ilie; Editing by Jeremy Gaunt)