I chose to see and experience El Año Que Nací at Portland’s Time Based Arts (TBA) Festival this year. It sounded so different than many of the other acts with its anthropological and historical inspirations. The play offered a retelling of stories of people who were swept up in the Chilean coup and dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. The stories begin in 1973 and flow past the end of the dictatorship in 1990, with each participant in the play describing their present circumstances briefly as well.
Lola Arias is a playwright who uses interdisciplinary techniques, actors and non-actors for her productions and projects. In one project titled Striptease, she has a baby in center stage while the parents spar on the telephone. The actors in The Year I was Born are actually telling their own true stories about their parents, a history lesson which I didn’t recall ever learning about in my education or media absorption. Lola Arias succeeds in melding true life stories from non-actors and the art of multimedia performance to deliver a chewy experience to the spectators that encourages empathy and a more human encounter of world events. Using “non” actors makes the stories inescapable and undeniable, increasing the effectiveness.
The players used music, games, drawing, dancing and singing to assist in telling their stories based on trailings of memories, leftover artifacts and comparative research. The “games” included lining up in different order according to economic class, skin tone, political ideology of each one’s father and political ideology of each one’s mother. They made arguments about why certain members should be in a different place than they placed themselves and one member would play referee based on these arguments. Like these confusing qualifier games that people play every day, categorizing and generalizing about the people around them, there emerge many ways of seeing one situation. Old events are seen and remembered differently by each player.
Each participant shares their story by beginning with their parents’ stories. One participant’s father was a body guard and mean muscle for Pinochet himself. Another participant’s mother, a guerrilla dissident, was killed in a shoot out against police. Multiple sets of participants’ parents were forced into exile. One participant’s father is in prison due to actions during the dictatorship, her mother has stopped talking to her in disapproval of the revealing nature of the play. The players project images of artifacts from their stories to share with each other and the audience. These artifacts include the clothing of one’s parents, secret letters, personal notes, old photographs and videos.
Rather than presenting these memories and tragedies solely as depressing lessons of the violence people inflict upon each other in a multitude of ways, and rather than focusing on the dysfunction that each participant had to live in, El Año Que Nací illuminates the fact that these are stories about actual people; people who now have their own children, people who are friends despite their parents’ actions against each other. Lola Arias has the players sit repeatedly in students’ desks; we all have something to learn from these events. Herein lies the power of art to illustrate the emotions and deeper meaning, the human consequences of a historical event that media like the news and mere historical record cannot convey. The Year I was Born is a part of the same artistic family as Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis and the songs of Fela Kuti, with the capacity to remind us that we are all just people.
Once each storyteller has had their turn talking about their past, present and allusions to the future, they play one last game. They flip a coin to determine who will win the next election in Chile. To end the performance, each player gets an amp and electric guitar out of one of the school lockers lining the back of the stage, plugs it in a jams in unison, blasting the audience with the ricocheting chords. One of the players announces at the top of her lungs that we’ll never know who will win the next election because in exactly eleven seconds there will be a huge earthquake and we will be the only survivors. After a drawn out steady jam of about 3 minutes, the players lay their guitars down on the floor of the stage and exit. The lights are shut off and the audience is sitting in the darkness listening to the sounds of reverberating feedback, like the ringing in one’s ears after a series of explosions. Once an event in history is over, it isn’t really over, it continues to resonate like rings spiraling out from a stone dropped in water.