Lola Arias’ El año en que nací, currently performing in the Under the Radar festival, is a collaborative piece depicting the lives of young Chileans and their parents during the Pinochet dictatorship and the years following. The piece is structured as a series of testimonials in which the performers describe and reenact the events of their birth and their parent’s lives against the backdrop of the political unrest of the late twentieth century in Chile. The play has a theatrical, “devised” kind of aesthetic, but the bulk of the play’s content consists of these stories and their straightforward tellings. Arias selected a range of individuals—some actors and performers, others not—with a variety of political affiliations and economic and cultural backgrounds to explore this period in a multi-perspectival manner.
The result is an experience that is theatrical but is also somehow other. The historical and the personal intertwine as political events are viewed through the lens of individual lives. The events’ reality and their embodiment in the people who actually experienced them gives the piece a kind of devastating urgency. There is the sense that the ramifications of the events depicted are still unfolding, so the work feels unfinished, evolving in the moment of its telling. As the performers flip a coin to divine Chile’s political future, spectators are confronted with the fact that these events will continue to impact these individuals’ lives for better or for worse. One of the performers, a woman named Viviana, began working on the piece not knowing her father or where he was. She imagined a variety of potential identities for him, but she did not know which was true. During the performances in Chile, she showed his picture and gave the audience her phone number as she asked for any information regarding his whereabouts. A spectator contacted her and she was able to locate him—he had been a policeman during the dictatorship and was now in prison for murder. At the end of the piece she stated that her mother no longer speaks to her because of her participation in the play. As a friend who I saw the show with commented, applauding a woman who has alienated herself from her family because of the piece she just performed feels very different—much more complicated and confusing—than the usual curtain call.
The piece is further complicated by its performance in the United States. Occasionally, the performers allude to the United States’s complicity in the Pinochet coup (which is overtly, if briefly, discussed in a program note) as well as to the impact of neoliberal economic policy on their lives. Though this was not emphasized, it did challenge our position as spectators. How do you sit and watch while your country is complicit or fostering devastating and repressive actions? How does this change when the ramifications of these actions are made individual and personal, and its long term effects apparent?
This is powerful, confusing stuff. The performers demonstrate a tremendous bravery and the piece is captivating. But it is also troubling and problematic and left me feeling frustrated and saddened by my position as a spectator in this narrative.