Regional Reviews: Albuquerque/Santa Fe
In 1973, General Augusto Pinochet led a CIA-backed coup in Chile to overthrow and assassinate the democratically elected president Salvador Allende. In order to solidify his military coup, Pinochet rounded up and tortured demonstrators. Over the next few years, he "disappeared" thousands of Chilean citizens, burying many of their bodies in the Atacama Desert. A few years later, in order to hide his crimes, he had the remains dug up and dumped in the Pacific Ocean. By that time, the remains were skeletal, and small bones and fragments were left behind in the sand.
Over the decades that followed, family members would go out to the desert and sift through the sand, seeking bones that would locate those who were disappeared. There are tales of women going out to Atacama for 25 years and finally finding the bones of family members. The identities of the bones were verified through DNA testing in Santiago.
Atacama by Augusto Federico Amador is a dramatic story of a woman and a man who meet while sifting for the bones of family members. The play has won a number of playwrighting awards and has been presented in staged readings. The production by Teatro Paraguas at the National Hispanic Cultural Centerpreceded by a weekend in Santa Feis the world premiere production.
As the story opens, Ignacia (Bernadette Pena) is digging through the sand, and Diego (James R. Chavez) has just arrived in the desert. She has been coming out to the desert for years, and she has actually found three finger bones of her son. Diego has just recently come to the desert, honoring the dying wish of his wife. He seeks to find the remains of his daughter.
As Ignacia teaches the hapless Diego the art of sifting through the sand, they get to know each other. They clash as they reveal their stories. Ignacia has a knack for guessing the difficulties in Diego's past, from marital infidelities to clashes with his left-leaning daughter who became one of Pinochet's disappeared. Diego admits he was a businessman who saw value in Pinochet's coup.
And so the story builds, as we get to know this political odd couple who are brought together by tragedy and the accompanying despair. The story builds slowly and at first seems predictable, even while rich in language. Yet halfway through, the story takes some unexpected turns that jolted me awake. This story isn't what I thought it wasit's far better.
Director Juliet Marie Salazar has done a fine job putting the production together. The setting is a large sandbox representing the Atacama Desert, designed by Salazar herself. Her casting of Pena and Chavez is excellent. I've seen Chavez a couple of times before, and he was a standout in those earlier plays. The role of Diego gives him far more room and he inhabits it well. This is the first time I've seen Pena, and she's terrific. While she first comes across as tired and defeated, her character shows a deep fire as the play develops.
Salazar takes some chances with her slow-build beginning, but it pays off as the action enters into its surprising twists. By the end, the whole stage seems afire. Quite a treat.
Atacama, through October 7, 2018, at the National Hispanic Cultural Center in Albuquerque NM. Performances are at 7:30 Friday and Saturday, and at 2:00 on Sunday. Tickets are $20 ,with a $3 discount for seniors, students, and NHCC members. For more information or to reserve tickets, call the NHCC at 246-2262, or go to nationalhispaniccenter.org.