They say time heals all wounds but in El Año en Que Nací, a collective piece of historical theater by the Argentinian playwright and director Lola Arias in the Under the Radar festival, time has the persistence – and consistency – that Salvador Dali recognized in it: rather than erase the pain of memory, in the case of the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile, time agglutinates on everyone it touches, laying its unbearable mass on lives, families, and society as a whole.
Appropriately, then, The Year I Was Born (the title’s English translation) begins with a roll-call of the darkest years of Chile’s history, counting backwards from 1990 to 1973: those bookends of the brutal police state led by Augusto Pinochet after the military coup he orchestrated chased President Salvador Allende from power. As the years are shouted out, the nine Chilean cast members begin to run in a circle around the stage, each of them entering at the mention of the year of his or her birth, a date which each of them wears taped to his back. When they introduce themselves with a laconic description of the most memorable event of the Pinochet year in which they were born, it becomes clear that national and personal histories are inextricably entwined and that unravelling them is the purpose of Lola Arias’ project.
There is much that is remarkable about El Año en Que Nací, but the most important detail of the show is that the play is created entirely from the personal histories of the actors, as told by themselves. There are times when the nearly seamless shifting between stories and the ease, and often humor, with which they are told, could lull us into believing that these are actors telling fictionalized tales. But the performances are just rough enough and the numerous family photos are certainly real enough to bring us back to the seemingly impossible fact that everything in the play is real: nothing is exaggerated (except perhaps by the effects of memory) and the piece is a living work in progress, with new events being added as the cast members learn more about their families’ activities during the dictatorship. El Año en Que Nací is not only a fascinating and moving work of theater but it is also a kind of “therapy” (as the cast admitted in a talkback) for a generation of young Chileans whose parents resisted, fled or supported the regime but who never talked about those disturbing and harrowing years.
As theater, the show tries hard to satisfy almost as much, and while Arias has assembled a part-professional, part-amateur cast, such distinctions are meaningless to the overall effect of the show’s collective storytelling. Layered over the cast’s physical game-playing (developed evidently through workshops and improv, the contours of which can peek through at times) are multiple narrative planes, interweaving archival recordings, personal documents, and DIY mock-ups of historical events using plastic soldiers, dolls, toy cars, maps, postcards and magic markers. The factual and the tongue-in-cheek reenactments of events contribute to the show’s tension between what is known, what can de recovered and that which, 50 years later, can only be speculated and imagined. Some startling photos reinforce that impression, including snapshots of parents with Pinochet himself or with Allende or Castro or with current president Michelle Bachelet when she was in high school. And there are more haunting images yet of the dead.
Our focus throughout the show, however, is always on the cast. They introduce themselves and tell us intimate and painful details of their lives, yet we are always struggling to understand them: Nicole who was raised as a self-described “Aryan Jew” in Atlanta, Georgia; Soledad whose parents were MAPU militants exfiltrated to Mexico, where she was born; Alejandro who comes from a family of police officers who knew the Pinochets personally, etc. They come from different backgrounds but they all share the same tragic history, no matter what their families believed or how they fared. Some of the most telling exercises the group engages in are when they attempt to line up in order of political leanings, socioeconomic status and (more ridiculously) skin-color. In the end, distinguishing between them is impossible: as they run and shout across the set that evokes a junior high, with lockers and school chairs, it is clear that they are all “children” of the Pinochet years.
The play ends on a moment of mordant irony involving the 10 peso coin, which was minted to celebrate the Pinochet coup, and, surprisingly, is still in circulation today. Just after it has been revealed that one of the actresses has fallen out with her family because of her involvement in the play, the cast flips the coin to decide if a much hoped for period of reconciliation and renewal under Michelle Bachelet’s leadership will come to fruition. In El Año en Que Nací, Lola Arias does a great service to the difficult process of remembering what history has wrought, so to better overcome it. But whether time will be allowed to heal as it is famously meant to, is still anyone’s guess in Chile.
In Spanish with English supertitles