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Liberator 5.2
Political Theatre (a Teatro del Pueblo festival at Intermedia Arts).
words: David Grant

Art is meant to challenge the people who encounter it – to push boundaries, challenge assumptions… to make us think. Some art accomplishes this primarily by appealing to the intellect; some by appealing directly to the heart. Teatro del Pueblo (The Peoples’ Theater) makes theater that does both, as strongly evidenced by the challenging slate of plays presented at this year’s annual Political Theater Festival – their fifth – which ran at Intermedia Arts and the University of Minnesota from February 16th to the 26th

This year’s festival was dedicated to Latin American women, a theme reflected in the work chosen by Teatro founder and creative director Al Justiniano to present. 

“Saved by a Poem”, written and directed by local writer Nestor Amarilla, tells the true, poignant story of how Amarilla’s own grandmother once saved his father from arrest and execution by winning a national poetry competition meant to commemorate dictator Alfredo Stroessner’s birthday. The competition’s goal, of course, was to collect heartfelt poetry from the people in praise of their self-appointed president-for-life, so at first, he is appalled at his mother’s choice to submit a poem. He knows his mother’s love for writing poetry about her garden; the family cats, and so on… a body of work that her very political son sees as sweet but completely unimportant and inconsequential. How could someone like her submit a poem to a competition meant to praise the man whose thugs killed her own husband and who now daily threaten her only son? But when, against all odds, she wins, her son discovers the true intent behind her poem. Only on the most superficial level is it a song of praise to the dictator. When he hears it read with great pomp and circumstance on national radio, he hears her cleverly worded cry against tyranny, loud and clear. And he feels a huge surge of pride in her – because if he heard and understood the real meaning behind her words, surely others must have too. Yet, here she is, using the government’s own media to spread her message of resistance out to virtually every household in the country! But the deeper uses of that winning poem soon become self-evident. When her son is arrested again and facing probable death, she deftly uses her status as winner of the competition to make a direct appeal to Stroessner on her son’s behalf. And within hours, her son is freed. The play was well acted, mostly in English, but with some Spanish dialogue by Sara Truesdale as Mariana, John Stillwell as Antonio and Adam Hegg as Mariana’s second husband, “El Viejo”. 

“Echoes from the New World”, by Ric Oquita with original music by Cristian Amigo, is a show that is currently part of Teatro Latino’s catalogue of touring work the theater performs at schools and other institutions around the state. It’s a very ambitious work that captures on stage some of the spirit of the “magical realism” that defines so much of

Latin American literature. Two sisters, energetically played by Karla Nweje as Cecile and Katie Kaufmann as Juana, discover that the contents of their grandmother’s trunk offer more than just a trip down memory lane; the trunk itself is literally a time machine that transports them back in time where they are witness to some provocative alternative versions of some of the historical events that have shaped the history of this continent – especially the history of the relationship between Latin American countries and the U.S. There’s an old Mexican saying about that relationship which translates as, “Mexico: so far from God; so close to the United States”.

This play is like musical riffs on that particular blues – a fanciful take on what it is to be one of this country’s neighbors to the south. The intent is ultimately serious but the play deftly uses humor to explore this history in the form of vignettes that play like a vaude-ville circus on hallucinogens. Co-directors Diana Dominguez and Toni Knorr succeeded in realizing this challenging vision with just a handful of props and a very minimal set.   

“A Woman from Nowhere: A Voice from Juarez”, written and choreographed by local writer Silvia Pontanza and directed by Alberto Justiniano, is a dark and sobering look at the gruesome, ritualistic murders of nearly 400 young Mexican women, many of them workers at U.S.-owned “maquiladoras” just across the border. Given the extent of the carnage and the over-whelming fear this on-going nightmare has caused, it’s amazing how little press the killings have generated here in the states. This play is a scream in the dark, intended to shake audiences awake and stir people up enough to take action. The play attempts to do this by chronicling the story of one woman who barely escapes the nightmare with her life, only to be victimized again by Immigration officials at the border and then a psych-iatric establishment that seems to do more harm than good. The play suffers from some heavy handed-ness in its approach – sometimes it works and some-times it doesn’t… but it succeeds in painting what feels like an authentic portrait of the often bleak lives of that vast army of women along the Texas border who feel so limited in their life options that they are willing to risk, again and again, the long, dark journey on foot across that infamous murder zone, just for the chance to earn a living wage. 

“Isabel Desterrada en Isabel”, written by Juan Radrigan and directed by Carlos Vargas Salgado, is a one woman tour de force acted by Nelly Pilares Manrique of Peru’s Aviñion Teatro. Performed in Spanish with projected subtitles, it offers a searing look at the world of a woman living on the streets of Anytown, South America, as a beggar. Her stories let us see the beauty and humanity that defines who she really is, despite her gruff and dirty exterior. The play offers an uncompromising look at grinding poverty and a clarion call do work for its elimination by whatever means are necessary. 

The series ended with “The Captain at the Inn of Morning”, written by Dominic Orlando and directed by Silvia Pontaza, offering another dose of South American “magical realism”. A military commander lost in the jungle encounters a mysterious indigenous woman who runs a tiny place called “The Inn of Morning”. He clumsily attempts to intimidate her into feeding him and then showing him the way out of the jungle but he soon learns who really has the power here as she – and finally the entire audience – force him to confront the madness and folly of war. 

Added to this embarrassment of riches was a special set of additional performances by two visiting theater troupes from South America, Teatro La Mascara from Cali, Columbia and Aviñion Teatro of Arequipa, Peru, as well as a special symposium held at the Univer-sity of Minnesota on the role of theater in the struggle for women’s rights in Latin Amer-ica with Columbian theater luminary Patricia Ariza as keynote speaker.  

Be on the lookout for next year’s Festival. And if the mid-winter “blahs” have left you in need of a big dose of political soul food, then don’t miss this chance to have your fill.




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