TBA Day 3: LOLA ARIAS | El año que nací (The Year I Was Born)

4-stars

Children of the revolution.

Lola Arias’s personal account of the Pinochet years in Chile is notable for two reasons.

First, It’s a fabulous show.

To echo an overheard departing audience member on Saturday: “This is one of the best things I have ever f#cking seen at PICA.”

Indeed.

Ever.

Despite some technical flaws and a few narrative inconsistencies (which the audience looks past because we are so interested in the story before us), THE YEAR I WAS BORN is the kind of direct, cross cultural experience we don’t get enough of in Portland – and that PICA is uniquely positioned to bring us.

The Chilean documentary style piece feels as welcome as a delicious meal from an entirely different food group we know we should be eating more of. We inhale it. It’s a vital reminder of how big the world is, and how much is out there beyond the whitey white Cascades. We desperately need more international material like this.

But we also need to create our own material that is this consequential. There is a second aspect of YEAR that explains its success and also points the way toward more authentic homegrown theatre pieces in the future: When theatre artists take on important social issues that affect a society or culture and put direct human experience (whether their own, or that of interviewed participants) on stage, the results can be huge.

Imago Theatre was the perfect venue for THE YEAR I WAS BORN.
Imago Theatre was the perfect venue for THE YEAR I WAS BORN.

The audience yearns for a real experience.

Yet so much of contemporary American playwriting is overrun by the three musketeers of whimsy, weirdness and wackiness – styles apparently encouraged if not (yet) mandated at the country’s elite playwriting schools.

Without an authentic subject or reason for being, these plays are diversions at best: “I know! Turn the narrator into a bird, then have her recite Jane Austen and talk about her boyfriend while it snows upside down!”.

Cute. But why? Where is the content, the reason for the audience assembling together to bear witness?

Why do we care?

All too often, we don’t.

With THE YEAR I WAS BORN, however, it’s clear from the opening moment why we care. We also know that the investment of our time this afternoon is going to pay dividends. The work exudes authenticity.

The format is straightforward: 11 people talking about what happened to their family members during the Pinochet years and trying to figure out what role these relations played in the larger national drama. Ensemble members wear the years they were born pasted on their backs, and the piece begins with each announcing what was happening in that year. It’s a simple and yet brilliant framing device to start the tale. Several times during the two intermissionless hours, Arias has the cast do several of these physical routines that effectively link the material to the live performance.

What happened in the 70’s and 80’s in Chile? There is a lot about reconstruction here. Children attempt to piece together what parents were doing, and which side they were on during the long military junta. It’s fascinating to see cast members together on stage whose parents were either ideologically opposed or actively killing each other during the era, and the fact that this kind of show is possible at all points toward how far Chile has come in the intervening years.

By comparison, to name another more recent conflict, it’s still impossible to imagine a similar style piece about the Bosnian war. Though, as children born in the early 90’s in the former Yugoslav states are now 20, perhaps we have their version of this excavation still to look forward to at a future TBA on a brilliant September afternoon.

The questions on stage are the big ones and applicable to any historical event or period. What happened? Why did it happen? Exactly how did it happen? What did it feel like when it happened? And now what do we do?

One of the strongest takeaways I mulled on the bike ride home may be one the group would not specifically identify if asked what this play is about. That is: There is no such thing as “history”. There are only individual stories.

This happened to me.

My sister knows what happened on that day.

My mother was there when this happened.

My grandfather saw this happen.

There is no onramp to history other than personal connection. From the sifted personal stories of millions, the silt of history gently accretes on the bottom.

But we can know nothing – absolutely nothing – about what history is in the abstract. History can only come to life through the stories of specific humans, what they did, and what was done to them.

And theatre like THE YEAR I WAS BORN is uniquely powerful when it comes to bringing individual stories to life.

Bravo, PICA, for what, even though we’re only three days in, will undoubtedly be one of this year’s highlights.