by Lacy M. Johnson
[photo courtesy of David Alarcón]
In El año en que nací / The Year I Was Born by Argentinian playwright Lola Arias, eleven artists born during Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship take the stage in an attempt to reckon with the crimes of the generation before. In a series of intertwining monologues (in Spanish, with English subtitles), the artists construct a story of the past that draws from the full spectrum of political ideologies, across lines of power and class and ethnicity. They rely not only on the irrefutable facts of public memory (the dates and locations of bombings, the names of political figures and the material consequences of their actions) but also on the private memory of the artists’ parents, recounted through personal artifacts that have survived from that time (family albums, wedding photos, postcards and letters, family videos, long-expired passports and articles of clothing).
What emerges is a riveting work of documentary theater that stays in the mind long after the lights go out and the audience exits through the door. This morning, I keep thinking about one particularly gut-wrenching scene, in which one of the artists reconstructs the execution of her mother, gunned down by eighty special forces officers, who then strip her body and drag her into the street “as a trophy for the media.” The artist recites this line lying face-up on the ground, stripped of her shirt by one of the other performers, while another snaps photographs with a camera. A fourth artist in the scene draws a chalk outline around the artist’s body as she speaks. The cast gathers, center stage, for her funeral. Moments later, the scene ends, another begins as a table is brought in for a feast. For a moment, the chalk outline remains on the floor as the artists sit down or stand around the table and begin to to eat. They’re laughing and smiling, nodding to one another, taking handfuls of food from each plate. One of the performers pushes a mop across the floor, and in only a few strokes, the chalk outline is gone, making clear how easily the space itself can be remade, reinvented. The feast goes on, as if nothing happened. Only the memory of the chalk outline remains.
In one of the final scenes, one artist says: we’ve talked a lot about the past, a little about the present, but we’ve said nothing of the future. The cast agrees to flip a coin to divine which side will win the next Chilean election: the left or the right. In this moment, after all that has transpired on the stage, the audience believes that, yes, the future is as arbitrary as the flip of a coin. We cannot change the past, only better understand it; and it is unclear how we can affect the future. Do we protest? Do we take up arms? At the end of the performance, each member of the eleven-artist cast takes up an electric guitar. The sound of their music builds and builds in a frenzied crescendo until there is only a giant wall of sound: the entire cast is alternately screaming or dancing, or shaking their heads — no, no, no — and on every face is a look of determination, of defiance. When they exit the stage and the lights go out I believe, for one, that there is something we can do. We can affect the future the only way we know how: by making important art.
Lacy M. Johnson is a writer and digital artist living in Houston, Texas, where she is the Director of Academic Initiatives at University of Houston’s Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts. Her second memoir, THE OTHER SIDE, is forthcoming from Portland-based Tin House Books.