Honoring an Actress

Prof. Omar Sangare in a still image from the film “Aktorka.”

A brush with greatness that eventually formed a friendship is bringing Omar Sangare, an associate professor of theatre at Williams, home to his native Poland for the second time in two years for the 40th Gdynia Film Festival. Last year, Sangare was a jurist at the festival, which celebrates Polish film. This year, he will return as a special guest to promote a documentary film, “Aktorka” (“The Actress”) in which he appears. The film celebrates the life and legacy of Polish actress Elzbieta Czyzewska.

Czyzewska was a legendary star of Polish stage and screen. One website refers to her as the Polish Marilyn Monroe. She worked with the best directors making some of the most honored Polish films of her time. In 1965, she met American journalist and historian David Halberstam while he was on assignment in Poland. They were married and she eventually came to the United States, where her stardom never reached the heights she possessed in Poland.

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Elzbieta Czyzewska

In 1994, she returned to Poland to stage a production of John Guare’s “Six Degrees of Separation,” which she had seen on Broadway. She reached out to the National Academy of Dramatic Art in Warsaw looking for an actor to play the lead, and Sangare, then a recent graduate of the academy, was mentioned to her. Sangare would go on to perform the lead in the Polish debut of the play, and form a friendship with Czyzewska that would continue until her death in 2010.

At a tribute to her after her death in 2010 at the Actors Studio, Guare delivered a touching speech about his friendship with the actress. Afterward, Sangare approached him and said the tribute should be turned into a play about her, and “Three Kinds of Exile” was born. The second act in the play focuses on Czyzewska’s life, and consists of Guare and Sangare sharing their stories of working with the actress. The play premiered in 2013 at the Atlantic Theatre in Manhattan.

The documentary also features an interview with Meryl Streep, who met Czyzewska at a Yale Repertory Theatre production of the Albert Camus adaptation of the Dostoyevsky novel “Possessed,” directed by Andrzej Wajda, a celebrated Polish director. Streep would later say she based her Polish accent in the film “Sophie’s Choice” on Czyzewska and called her the most fascinating woman she had ever met.

The Gdynia Film Festival is Sept. 14-19. For more information about Prof. Sangare and the festival, visit his website at www.omarsangare.com.