To Remember or not? That is the Dilemma

A few days ago I had the opportunity to watch the play “Villa” written by acclaimed Chilean playwright and director Guillermo Calderon. This unique intercultural theatrical collaboration was coordinated...

A few days ago I had the opportunity to watch the play “Villa” written by acclaimed Chilean playwright and director Guillermo Calderon. This unique intercultural theatrical collaboration was coordinated by Indika Senanayake, Sri Lankan actress and theater-maker based in New York. Their collaboration brought this play to life in Colombo, in English and with Sri Lankan actresses. The play is about three women who find themselves appointed as members of a committee. This committee has to choose the future of Villa Grimaldi, a place that was a center of torture in Chile. They debate argue, vote, and re-vote, grappling with the difficulty of raising a monument or not to the actual and complex history of an authoritarian regime.

The history of Villa Grimaldi has kidnapping, torture and extermination, linked to human rights violations perpetrated by state agents during the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990 ). El Cuartel Terranova, name given by the military,  was better known as “Villa Grimaldi” referring to the name that the previous owners had given the place, following his architectural and ornamental features. This place kept around 4,500 male and female prisoners, of whom 236 were killed or held as disappeared.

In 1978 the villa’s use as a torture house decreased with the ending of the bloody dictatorship, and  culminated in its dismantlement. Shortly after, a citizen movement led by the Permanent Assembly for Human Rights of Peñalolén and La Reina, began a campaign of denunciation and restoration of Villa Grimaldi, in order to develop a place of memory dedicated to the victims of the dictatorship and the promotion of human rights. Later, the State expropriated Villa Grimaldi through the Ministry of Housing and reopened it in March 1997, remaining open to the public and hosting commemorative activities alongside efforts to promote a culture of respect for human rights.

The play’s director Calderon was surprised by the interest of the Colombo audience. Yes, the original play was written in Spanish and then translated to British English and then again to an American English  version. He explained to the audience that the words and rhythm of the original dialogue were lost in the translation but the message was kept intact and able to reach different audiences. Calderon also compelled the audience to think that there is the need to accept that people will always experiment  different reactions towards places and events , including that of total indifference.

The issue of memory has been dealt with in a number of plays, essays and art work in Latin America, addressing issues such as reconstruction of a traumatic past, imprisonment, the power of words, the importance to speak out, among others. Translators have performed a very valuable role to preserve the dynamics of dialogues and texts. In a play,  it is the dialogue that triggers the spectators’ own views and feelings, like in the case of “Villa” about places where people died or disappeared, and the life of the survivors.

Also, days after Calderon’s play there was another political play performed in Colombo. It was a South African play  translated into Sinhala language, directed by dramatist Buddhika Damayantha:  “A New Parliament : Two-Thirds Majority”. The political thriller was based on an adaptation of Mike Van Graan’s popular South African play “Green Man Flashing”.

We could say that both plays deal with a culture of fear and repression that is what Sri Lankans are presently aimed to eradicate. And then the question arises:

Should we remember or not?

Definitely, we must not forget. And we are not forgetting.

With Calderon’s new play “Escuela” being shown in Chicago in November this year, the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA), who are hosting the play, describe the director:

“Guillermo Calderón was born in Chile’s capital, Santiago, at the height of Salvador Allende’s democratically elected left-wing Popular Unity alliance, and came of age under the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet; his uncle was killed by Pinochet’s security police.”

Sharing his views with The New York Times, Calderon says: “I grew up with that, and with something that I’ve put into my other works too, which is domestic life, life between four walls, in a context of violence. You’re eating at home, and the news is talking about all the horrible things that have happened, you can hear gunshots, they turn off the electricity, all these things. That contrast between the world outside and the domestic world is something I wanted to do here—shut-in but hearing the gunshots.”

From these words is possible to capture the intention of the director: to allow people to reflect on the past while living in the present.

If you happen to be in Chicago, don’t miss to get a ticket for Escuela!

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Rossana Karunaratna

Rossana has 25 years of experience working with civil society, government agencies, higher education institutions and international organisations in Peru, her country of birth and in Sri Lanka as tutor and consultant. Her areas of expertise include peace building and conflict transformation, human rights, gender (women’s rights and domestic violence), state-civil society relationships and inter-marriage and citizenship. She lives in Colombo, Sri Lanka.

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