New funding program brings avant-garde ‘Amarillo’ to U.S.
By Celia Wren,
Sand spills from a jug held by a whirling woman. Sand sluices over the still, prone body of a man. Sand cascades from dozens of plastic bags that dangle in the air like broken hourglasses.
About 800 pounds of sand figures in “Amarillo,” a multimedia production by the highly regarded Mexican company Teatro Linea de Sombra — not that sediments will hog the spotlight when GALA Hispanic Theatre presents the piece Friday and Saturday.
A theatrical meditation on the harsh realities that face undocumented migrants and their families, “Amarillo” also features projections, throat singing, a surveillance camera, 100 water bottles, a 15-foot-high wall that actors climb and bounce off — and a poem by Harold Pinter.
The ensemble-generated production will strike a chord with Americans who are aware that U.S. immigration policies and politics continue to take a human toll, says Rebecca Medrano, GALA’s executive director. “People are still being deported,” she points out. Indeed, she adds, “in today’s world, where we’re shrinking boundaries because of the Internet and media, we’re still actually very tied to national boundaries.”
But “Amarillo” is more than a political piece, Medrano says; it’s also a burst of artistic daring. “There’s a lot of avant-garde work going on in Mexico,” she says. “People are not aware of that.”
Making it possible for GALA to acquaint local audiences with the Mexican avant-garde is a new funding program designed to introduce U.S. audiences to a neighboring region’s artists and perspectives. Southern Exposure: Performing Arts of Latin America, a program of the Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation in partnership with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation, supports U.S. arts presenters that band together to bring Latin American performers to this country.
Among the beneficiaries of the program’s inaugural round of grants are a Brazilian maracatu music ensemble; a Colombian street theater that draws on butoh dance tradition; and Teatro Linea de Sombra, which is taking “Amarillo” to New York City, Seattle and rural New Jersey as well as D.C.
Directed by Teatro Linea de Sombra’s artistic director, Jorge A. Vargas, “Amarillo” evokes the experiences of men who set out for the U.S. border only to disappear during the dangerous journey. The six performers also channel the anguish of the men’s families, left behind to wait and wonder. (The performance is principally in Spanish, with English surtitles.) The script is by turns wrenchingly specific — it is based on documentary material, including company members’ interviews with migrants — and mysteriously poetic, segueing at one point into Pinter’s poem “Death,” an incantation of grim rhetorical questions (“Where was the dead body found? / Who found the dead body? / Was the dead body dead when found?”)
As the actors speak, a wall at the rear catches projections, including shots of a racing train (migrants sometimes hitch hazardous rides on the tops of Mexican trains) and missing-person posters. The actors also engage in stylized movement, some of it involving sand — symbolic of the desert terrain on the Mexico-U.S. border — or water bottles, which speak of the perils of dehydration.
“It’s a very poetic work, but within that poetry there’s a gritty honesty, so it never becomes artsy and precious, and it never falls into political theater,” says Susana Tubert, executive director and co-founder of the Latino International Theater Festival of New York, whose TeatroStageFest division presented “Amarillo” Oct. 18-20.
But the troupe is interested in more than stylistic edginess. “We try to use the image for its deep meaning — its social and political dimension — and not just for spectacle,” Vargas said in a phone interview shortly after the company’s arrival in New York.
With an interpreter on the line, the director explained that while the title “Amarillo” refers to the Texas town that has been a destination for undocumented migrants, the name also has metaphorical resonance. Because the word “amarillo” means “yellow” in Spanish, the title evokes “the sun that kills people in the desert,” Vargas said. “It’s also the myth of El Dorado, the golden city,” signifying the dream of economic betterment that motivates many migrants.
Vargas and his colleagues aren’t simply addressing such motifs from the stage during their U.S. sojourn. While visiting D.C., for instance, company members will engage local communities, including a storytelling workshop with day laborers and others served by the Central American Resource Center, a local service organization.
Such out-of-the-spotlight get-togethers are key ingredients of the Southern Exposure program, which aims to promote cross-cultural dialogue and, where necessary, to help Americans move beyond “stereotypical kinds of perceptions” such as the notion that Mexican culture begins and ends at mariachi, says Pennie Ojeda, director of international activities for the NEA.
Ojeda helped spearhead the Southern Exposure initiative after noticing that Latin American productions, when they visited the United States at all, tended to make a single stop in a major city such as Washington rather than moving around the country.
“It just seemed like such a missed opportunity,” Ojeda says.
To address the issue, the NEA teamed with the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation and Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation, organizations whose areas of interest include international arts exchange. The resulting Southern Exposure program encourages more rural arts presenters, as well as big-city outfits, to get involved in hosting Latin American artists. Collaborating on the “Amarillo” tour with GALA, TeatroStageFest and the Seattle contemporary arts center On the Boards has been Cumberland County College Fine and Performing Arts Center in southwest New Jersey.
“We’re nothing but a lot of farmland around here,” the center’s director, Greg Hambleton, says cheerfully. “We’re the part of the Garden State that can be called that.”
“Amarillo” — at the center last Friday — was the first full-scale international arts attraction the venue has ever hosted, Hambleton says. The Southern Exposure program “really helps presenters like myself, who quite honestly could never afford to present groups from outside of the United States, expose our audiences to this culture,” he notes. “And — vice versa — expose these artists to our culture.”
At his facility, Hambleton supervised the construction of the climbing-wall set unit used in East Coast performances of “Amarillo.” A wood-based structure that took about 35 hours to create, according to Hambleton, the wall has been moving among New Jersey, New York City and D.C. by truck. The sharing scheme is an example of the efficiencies that the Southern Exposure program’s collaborative format makes possible.
“We would never have brought it on our own, because it’s a complex production,” GALA’s Medrano says of “Amarillo.”
The staging intricacies, arguably, allow the show to touch on universal concerns such as loss, impermanence and economic inequity.
“The theme is more than just crossing the border,” Medrano says.
Wren is a freelance writer.
by Teatro Linea de Sombra. At GALA Theatre, 3333 14th St. NW, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. Call 202-234-7174 or 800-494-8497 or visit www.galatheatre.org.