DONNA ABELA STATE OF PLAY
KEEP GOING SISTER I WILL TRANSLATE FOR YOU
Reflections on the 11th Women Playwrights International Conference in Santiago, Chile.
BY DONNA ABELA
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This is my third WPI conference, and the second time I would have a play in the playreading program. In 2004, in Manilla, my reading took place during the last session on the last day, too late to make connections through my work, or to culturally adjust to the fact that in the post-Marcos, very Catholic Philippines, an Australian satire which finds Mother Church in bed with a General was no laughing matter. But WPIC have scheduled my reading on day one, so I’m delighted, and looking forward to living and breathing theatre in another language in another part of the global south. I’m confident that the Spanish translation of the “fragment” of my play (to use the WPIC term) - crafted by my Argentine, English professor, poet, best friend - conveys, as far as possible, the meanings and intentions of the English original. I’ve sent what was required - the fragment, a character list, and a three-line synopsis - and have heard nothing more from WPIC, so I assume that all must be in order for my reading.
President Salvador Allende paid construction workers and artists equal wages to build and beautify the facility our conference is using as its main venue - now known as the Gabriela Mistral Metropolitan Cultural Centre or GAM. After the 1973 coup d’état, General Pinochet moved in, and the facility became the seat of his military junta. The raised fists an artist had embossed onto door handles were turned upside down, as if ready to be cuffed.
Each time I enter GAM, I’m aware that Chile’s dictator had walked through the same space as me, as us, as women writers gathering to speak up and speak out … and that he had done so with antithetical and monstrous intent. But Pinochet is dead, and his headquarters is again a popular gathering place. The vision and skill of the original builders and artists has been reclaimed for expression - instead of repression - and those embossed fists, set right, are raised again in solidarity and resistance.
My play Jump For Jordan is a comedy about a queer Arabic-Australian woman. The reading is at Gam, on the fluorescent-lit floor of a lecture room. The script has been cut. The presentation is frenetic, with caricaturing music and costumes, and some camp gender-wrong casting. Surreally, I see that my play’s intentions have not been understood, and I watch my expertly-translated play become the very thing I had set out to oppose - a piece of orientalism. Even in Spanish, our Peruvian friend could not make sense of it. I swallow my shock. I have to get through a Q & A. I focus on being gracious to my hosts.
Afterwards, I meet the director Amalá Saint-Pierrre. She works with a professional theatre company attached to a Catholic university. She is clearly proud of the reading, and keen to go for a drink. In a local bar, I ask a couple of questions to make sense of what I had seen - why did you cast men as the lesbian lover and elderly aunt? - before moving on to the safer topic of politics. Born in France to parents who had fled there after the coup, Amalá speaks about the particular challenges of being a “reverse exile”. We compare the Chilean and Argentine dictatorships and have an illuminating conversation that is all too short. When she leaves to resume rehearses for the new Argentine play she is about to open, I feel that we could have worked together really well.
Next morning, I am stunned. I nurse a brain-blanking headache. I feel flattened and deeply embarrassed before my international peers. I want to hide or leave. I never want to write another play again.
Seven days later, an artefact seers its image onto my mind’s eye - the charred and mangled remains of a typewriter pulled from the rubble of the Palacio de la Moneda which had been pulverised during the coup, and was the place of Allende’s death. It is on display in the Museum of Memory and Human Rights which commemorates the victims of human rights violations perpetrated during Chile’s seventeen-year dictatorship. I remember my reading, and think this blasted typewriter could have become the epitome of my conference experience.
Fortunately, the rest of the conference, and that feisty city, puts the reading in context, in a field of contexts actually, and shows me that the mishandling of my play - and others during that week - matters far less than my capacity to write a play in the first place.
Watching other play fragments in Spanish without much context, in presentations that vary widely in their rendering, often in darkened spaces that don’t allow me to follow the English version in my hands, makes most of the readings opaque to me. I know that this relegation of English is long overdue and hugely important, but I am disappointed that the content and form of the actual plays pretty much escape me.
However, in performances, in simultaneously-translated panels and Q & As, and in general conversation, I hear so many women speak about the constrained or oppressive circumstances in which their plays were written.
In Latin America, countries are still struggling with the trust-crushing legacy of dictatorships. In Eastern Europe, ultra-conservatives are cancelling the rights of LGBTQI people, and in Brazil, are fuelling homophobic violence and murder. In Chile, police deploy tear gas and water cannons to disperse protesters demanding reproductive rights and affordable higher education. In Mexico, kidnapping by narco businesses has surged, and happens in the thousands each year, to rich and poor alike. Egyptian women calling for democracy in Tahir Square were sexually abused, African languages are disappearing, and gender-based violence in the Philippines is compounded by poverty, natural disasters and armed conflict. The number of times the word femicide is used, especially in relation to first nations women and girls, notably in Canada, is sobering, as is the ubiquitous inadequacy of political will to catch and convict their abductors and assassins. To varying degrees, from most countries, including our own, the footfalls of authoritarianism can be heard.
When a playwright from Concepción describes how a horrific rape made her an outsider to herself and to her sense of being a woman, she sums up what I know to be a first principle in my own practice - in writing, first I recover my freedom. Art is the way back; it is how we un-crush ourselves; it is agency in the making.
This is not to dismiss the well-intentioned mishandling of my play or the psychic wound this always causes. Nor is it to overlook the fact that had directors had access to the narrative and dramaturgical context of the script fragments, had directors and playwrights been able to work together, communication and exchange could have been better supported.
However, in the scheme of things, in the field contexts provided by the conference and the street-art-besotted streets of Chile at large, I am often reminded of the power and capacity of art, of what becomes possible when we put our ingenuity to superlative use. My capacity to create a play in the first place, “the urge towards art” as my Argentine friend would say, is deeply reaffirmed, is infinitely more important than the parochial issue of whether a reading of my play was good or bad.
The blasted typewriter on display in that spirited and generous once junta-controlled country offers me sustaining answers to the perennial questions … Why write? Why make art in the first place?
Because it is an act of creation that can recover and enact freedom. Because it gives us the capacity to reclaim and recreate when we most need it. Because it can dilute monologic hegemonies with voices full of neglected and much needed urgency and strength. Because - to borrow a phrase used by playwright Ines Margarita Stranger to describe the work feminists are currently doing in Chile - it can contribute to the task of preserving the species. Because what is typed can outlive the dictator, the censor, the copper, abductor, the bureaucrat, the legislator who tomorrow might outlaw your poverty, your race, your language, your union, your love for your wife.
At the closing ceremony, one of our ever-ebullient conference hosts, Sally Campusano Torres, says that the conference’s main aim was solidarity. Months later, I still feel a sense of solidarity with our international counterparts who are likewise working with words and actors and audiences to transform the territories in which they write and struggle, and to activate new propositions and possibilities that may recover and preserve their freedoms.
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