[dc]“I[/dc]f you have doubts about your identity, contact Las Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo.” So read billboards across today’s Argentina, where thousands of people were “disappeared” between 1976 and 1983 during the brutal military dictatorship’s Dirty War.
Antaeus Theatre Company presents the West Coast premiere of Stephanie Alison Walker’s striking new play, The Abuelas (The Grandmothers), seen opening night, Oct. 11. It explores the legacy of that dark period in Argentine history insofar as it affects at least three families who never expected that their own lives would be drawn into the maelstrom of personal truth and identity.
Andi Chapman directs this powerhouse performance of a six-member cast, three of whose women are Argentine themselves.
The Abuelas explores the legacy of that dark period in Argentine history insofar as it affects at least three families who never expected that their own lives would be drawn into the maelstrom of personal truth and identity.
Some historical background is helpful
In March of 1976, a military junta seized control of Argentina. Americans should not forget that at the time Henry Kissinger was serving as United States Secretary of State (1973-77), under Richard Nixon and then Gerald Ford. Among his “greatest hits” were the fascist coup against President Salvador Allende of Chile and the Indonesian military’s terror against the newly liberated nation of East Timor, not to mention his long involvement in the Vietnam War and its incursions into Laos and Cambodia.
Those opposed to the new extreme-right government were told “to make themselves invisible, or they would be made to vanish.” By September 1976, the regime was already responsible for an average of 30 abductions every day. From these abductions, a new word came into common usage: los desaparecidos, the “disappeareds.” Especially targeted were radical students, intellectuals, political activists and trade unionists. A higher than proportionate number were Jews. The regime is estimated to have murdered 30,000 Argentine citizens.
Among those detained and tortured were young pregnant women whose babies were stolen and illegally adopted out to “politically acceptable” parents. Probably a majority of those young mothers were forced onto planes that flew over the Atlantic Ocean and they were thrown out to their deaths. The children’s family identity was erased.
Despite the atmosphere of fear promoted by the junta regime, two groups of fearless women—representing the mothers and grandmothers of the disappeared—began protesting the disappearances of their relatives and striving for the reunification of their families. They focused their protest on the highly visible Plaza de Mayo in Argentina’s capital city, Buenos Aires.
“The Madres” embarked on a crusade to obtain information about their missing children, demanding both the return of their children and punishment for their captors. “The Abuelas” have a sharper focus: to find their living grandchildren. They call them los desaparecidos con vida (“the living disappeared”), referring to the babies who had been taken from their murdered daughters and sons.
How the play came about
Walker, whose stepmother is Argentine, began researching both groups while living for a time in Buenos Aires. “This is a way I can help bring international attention to the situation and inspire the continued search for these lost grandchildren,” she says. “Number 130 was recently found, but an estimated 370 are still missing. It’s a way to get people talking, thinking, Googling at intermission.”
Developed in the Antaeus Playwrights Lab, The Abuelas was a semi-finalist for the 2017 O’Neill National Playwrights Conference, the winner of the 2018 Ashland New Plays Festival, and received its world premiere in February 2019 from Teatro Vista at Victory Gardens in Chicago. It was written as a stand-alone companion piece to the playwright’s The Madres, which was produced in 2018 by four theaters across the U.S. (including the Skylight Theatre in Los Angeles) as part of a “rolling world premiere” from the National New Play Network. Interestingly, Denise Blasor, who played the mother in later performances of The Madres, now plays the adoptive mother in The Abuelas.
The Abuelas is the first time the company has offered a full production of a play developed in its Playwrights Lab. Generally, Antaeus concentrates on classic titles, although it did recently program a new work, an adaptation of the Richard Wright novel Native Son, which Andi Chapman also directed.
“Our hope is that, in addition to our reputation for producing the classics, Antaeus will become a place where future classics are created,” say Antaeus co-artistic directors Bill Brochtrup and Kitty Swink. “Andi’s vision and understanding of the script’s aspects of magical realism as well as its down to earth human connections assure that this will be a riveting production.” The play has “the kind of epic scope, historical sweep and largeness of theme that is our hallmark.”
Argentine actress Luisina Quarleri stars as Gabriela, an Argentine concert musician living in Chicago as the first woman to become first chair cellist in the Chicago Symphony. Now 37, she lives with her architect husband Marty (Seamus Dever) in a comfortable, well-appointed high-rise apartment overlooking Lake Michigan with their young baby boy Luca. Her instrument becomes her refuge that she retreats to at moments of stress.
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At the moment we meet her, she is hosting her (adoptive) mother Soledad (Denise Blasor), a high-strung matriarch whose egocentric antics are beginning to grate on her. Who wouldn’t get impatient with her constant stream of telenovela overacting? Since we know already what the theme of this play is, it comes as no great surprise to us to learn that Soledad and her (unseen) professor husband Juan are the adoptive parents of the kidnapped daughter.
A pair of visitors from Buenos Aires drops in—César, a young man who presents himself as a forensic anthropologist (David DeSantos), and an older woman, Carolina (Irene De Bari), who has ardently followed Gabriela’s stellar career from afar. They carry with them convincing evidence as to Gabriela’s true parentage.
As a morally driven, compassionate writer, Walker is concerned only on the surface with the factual exposition of Gabriela’s shocking background (although it’s kind of interesting now that DNA offers proof positive). That is only the framework of the story. The emotional truths come out in the questions the playwright asks of her characters. What happens to a person’s sense of identity when she discovers that her entire life is a lie? What changes must ensue from learning the truth? Does knowledge bring deliverance from the lies or just more uninvited complications? Can Gabriela integrate her two identities, or must she choose one or the other? What capacity does she hold for understanding, for forgiveness, for empathy with a stranger, even as she recognizes that her whole existence is the fruit of the most brutal crime and betrayal imaginable?
“If the disappeared had a voice,” says director Andi Chapman, “I believe they would say, ‘Please move forward. Live your life, in victory and triumph!’”
Most of the play takes place in Chicago, suggesting that Gabriela’s life has indeed been hemispherically upended from her origin in South America. The constant imagery of water—lake, ocean, waves, snow—conveys psychic memories of birth and death. From the beginning, we also sense an underlying strain between Gabriela and Marty, a parallel plot device that similarly contains themes of trust and forgiveness.
The cast also features Argentine actor Carolina Montenegro as the birth mother Belén (a common Spanish name that means “Bethlehem,” whatever additional meaning that may intend), who appears in hallucinatory sequences that graphically recapitulate Gabriela’s appearance in the world. Her birth name was “Paloma,” dove, symbol of the Annunciation.
As to the writing itself, Walker’s story unfolds in the generally accepted mode of the traditional “well-made” play. Some possibilities have gone relatively unexplored; for example, as powerfully as Gabriela’s own birth is depicted, we learn next to nothing about her own child Luca’s birth, which took place only months before and could well be still a fresh reservoir of memory, image, pain, and feeling. From the newly uncovered grandmother, we also learn far too little about Gabriela’s birth parents. We see photos that uncannily mirror Gabriela’s face. But were they activists? Married? We do find out the father Agustín was a musician, but surely a distinguished cellist would want to know a little more about that—what instrument? Classically trained, an amateur, a songwriter, a public performer?
Soledad repeatedly asks Gabriela to play her favorite song, the tragic “Alfonsina y el Mar” (Alfonsina and the Sea), by Ariel Ramírez and Félix Luna. It recalls the suicide of one of Argentina’s most famous poets, the early feminist Alfonsina Storni (1892-1938). Suffering from recurring breast cancer, Storni walked out into the ocean at La Perla beach in Mar del Plata and drowned herself. If Walker puts this song, and the story behind it, into a context few theatergoers will grasp, that perhaps can be said to match the ironic and tortured symbolism that escaped the solipsistic Soledad entirely. I would have liked more clarity about the song, and perhaps even its becoming a plot point.
For a play that is in part about music, the vocal lines are efficient and hard-working but do not sing lyrically. Fortunately, the production is blessed by an expressive, extroverted cast that lifts the script into power if not poetry. For its subject and production, I give it high marks. Whether it rises to the level of a modern classic remains to be seen.
Now, this is a bit of a stretch, but the heightened emotionalism of both the essential situation and the strongly etched roles recalls nothing to me so much as opera, with its oversized, exaggerated gestures propelled into song. Maybe some day, like many of the great operas such as La Traviata, Rigoletto, The Marriage of Figaro, or La Bohème, it would become the destiny of The Abuelas to be the source for a compelling piece of music theatre.
In any case, it is certainly an apt moment to raise the curtain on a play that points to the political weaponization of children as a means of punishing the parents.
The creative team for The Abuelas includes scenic designer Edward E. Haynes Jr., lighting designer Andrew Schmedake, costume designer Wendell C. Carmichael, sound designer Jeff Gardner, and projection designer Adam Macias—the same team that created the award-winning production design for Native Son.
Red Argentina por el Derecho a la Identidad Canada/USA (Argentine Network for the Right to Identity Canada/USA) exists to help individuals with doubts or questions about their identity. They can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. The Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo can be contacted at email@example.com. An inquiry does not commit to start any claims and will be carried out with absolute confidentiality.
The Abuelas continues through Nov. 25, with performances on Fri. and Sat. at 8 p.m., and Sun. at 2 p.m; also on Mon. at 8 p.m. through Oct. 31. Check the company website for the performance schedule between Oct. 31 and Nov. 25, when performances will run in rotation with the Holocaust-themed Eight Nights.
The Antaeus Theatre Company, at the Kiki & David Gindler Performing Arts Center, is located at 110 E. Broadway, Glendale 91205 (between N. Brand Blvd. and Artsakh Ave.). The first 90 minutes of parking is free, then $2 per hour, in the Glendale Marketplace garage located at 120 Artsakh Ave. (between Broadway and Harvard). For reservations and information, call (818) 506-1983 or go to www.antaeus.org.
Eric A. Gordon