Remembering, Forgetting and Fighting Impunity in Atacama (Full Circle Theatre) – Twin Cities Arts Reader
Pedro R. Bayon and Lara Trujillo star in the Full Circle Theater production of Atacamanow playing at the Park Square Theater in Saint Paul, MN.
Full Circle Theater’s mission, the program reminds us, is to “produce heartfelt, groundbreaking theater that artfully addresses issues of diversity and social justice for 21st-century audiences.” This mission is well fulfilled in the current production of FCT by Augusto Federico Amador Atacamanow plays on the Proscenium Stage at the Park Square Theatre.
It is not easy to discuss the plot of Atacama spoiler-free; However, deliberately omitting crucial plot revelations could allow the experience of seeing this show to be as deeply moving for readers as it was for me.
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Atacama takes place in Chile in the aftermath of Pinochet’s reign. This framework is essential, as is understanding a relevant story. In 1970, Salvador Allende’s “Popular Unity” socialist campaign won the Chilean elections, establishing the first democratically elected socialist government in the Americas. However, there were ongoing tensions with Chile’s Congress, which was controlled by the opposition, and US President Richard Nixon undermined the country’s economy by blocking multilateral bank loans to Chile and ending credits and loans. for American exports. Nixon encouraged and supported a reactionary military coup in 1973. The following year, General Augusto Pinochet firmly established himself in a brutal right-wing dictatorship that would last another 17 years.
Pinochet’s coup and subsequent repressions were extremely bloody. According to the Rettig report, more than 1,200 people were “disappeared” under the Pinochet regime. The victims were of all ages, but many were young university students; many bodies have never been found, many believe that the official tally of confirmed deaths is missing several hundred.
The title of this piece comes from the vast Atacama Desert in northern Chile, where many bodies of missing persons and executions were buried. Later, wanting to hide the crimes of the junta, Pinochet had the bodies dug up and thrown into the sea.
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Atacama is Amador’s third work dictator game trilogy, all dealing with surviving Latin American dictatorships. Ignacia (Lara Trujillo, who also directed) and Diego (Pedro R. Bayon) are both middle-aged relatives of victims of Pinochet’s henchmen. Ignacia lost her son and Diego her daughter. Both actors give wonderful, honest, and accurate performances in this play that blends psychology, philosophy, and magical realism with the story.
The script focuses on the lived experiences of Women of Calama. Ignacia is one of them: women who have spent three decades toiling in the dry heat of the world’s driest non-polar desert, digging through the sand and searching with their hands for the scattered skeletal remains of members of their family “disappeared”, fallen or missed in the hasty concealment. When they find fragments, they take them to Santiago to a DNA lab, wondering if they might belong to missing siblings, children, or spouses.
At the start of the play, Diego is a newcomer to this search, armed with a large shovel which he drives into the sand. Ignacia warns him that he must be much more delicate: moving gently through the sand by hand, to locate the broken bones. Diego is dismissive of the whole operation: he is there to fulfill the promise made to his deceased wife that he would continue to search for their daughter’s bones, despite his own apprehensions. Ignacia is a research and daily veteran; she won’t be at peace until she finds all the pieces of her missing son. Both are tormented, but their answers diverge.
Pinochet’s coup and its aftermath have, of course, been described elsewhere. Best-known examples include Ariel Dorfman’s brilliant play (and later excellent film) Death and the Maiden, which powerfully explores the endless psychological trauma of victims, as a torture survivor recognizes and confronts her former interrogator. Another well-known work is the masterful film by Constantin Costa-Gavras Faded awaybased on the tragic kidnapping and murder of journalist and filmmaker Charles Horman in the days following Pinochet’s coup, and the search for his father and wife to find out what happened to him.
Faded away hauntingly conveys the chaotic and surreal feel of the coup, as experienced by many of its witnesses. (In a startling and widely quoted image, a terrified woman (Sissy Spacek as Horman’s wife) crouches behind a door as gunfire erupts and a white horse gallops, followed by a military truck with armed military thugs hanging by her side. Ignacia’s memories in Atacama convey a similar feeling of unimaginable shock. Testimonies from survivors of the coup and similar historical events express the same sense of being utterly stunned by the sudden leap from relatively normal violence to explosive violence. Most of us, living ordinary lives, perceive ourselves as somehow shielded and shielded from such disasters – until the moment of collapse.
Another common psychological effect among surviving families captured by Amador is remorse and self-recrimination. Ignacia blames herself for raising a son as a communist, who was later murdered for those beliefs. Yet when Diego expresses guilt for his own (very different) influence on his murdered daughter, Ignacia observes that blaming yourself is simply what being a parent means.
Atacama also struggles with how erasing, forgetting, distracting, or simply complacency can contribute to or even increase the injustice being done. The indifference of others can retraumatize those who have suffered.
At one point, Diego tries to offer star consolation. A young Ignacia enjoyed studying the night sky, and the large ALMA Observatory is visible from where they dig. Maybe seeing the faint echoes of the Big Bang might make the suffering of mere mortals more bearable, Diego suggests, but Ignacia won’t. Human cruelty is real and substantial; while the stars may seem numberless, like grains of sand in the desert, but extreme suffering cannot be healed or consoled by notions of infinite things.
Amador’s play asks some of the same questions as Dorfman’s play:
- Is any form of justice for the victims of torture and mass executions or for their surviving families even conceivable? Or, is designing this justice a further injustice – an insult – to the victims?
- Is justice always justice delayed?
- What, if anything, could constitute sufficient atonement for crimes against humanity?
- What kind of account should there be, and what kind of reconciliation?
Another constant theme is that any conceivable reconciliation must be preceded by the truth: whole and complete.
Mina Kinukawa’s suitably sparse set – just empty desert and stars – conveys a strong sense of Atacama as a place of barrenness and trauma. Here, memory and voluntary forgetting fight against each other. Ultimately, it turns into a place of timelessness.
To avoid spoilers, this review omits to discuss many of the play’s powerful dramatic twists and its well-crafted use of magical realism. Suffice to say that it is a moving drama and exceptionally written. As the work gestures toward hope near its end, Atacama remains essentially sad, and a timely warning, as the playwright’s poignant program note shows:
I must confess that in ending Atacama, I never thought in my wildest imagination that my country would itself become a victim of an attempted coup that took place on January 6, 2020. Yet most of my fellow Americans have reacted to the rise of fascism with a shrug. Meanwhile, we observe in real time how the Ukrainian people have become the new and courageous defender of democracy. Like Chileans before them, who fought and died for freedom against the Pinochet dictatorship, we Americans are once again reminded of how we became mere spectators in the struggle for democracy.
Perhaps attending this play and remaining with others in the dark, and witnessing these depictions of this terrible chapter in history, can in itself be a small step towards justice and towards reconciliation.
Atacama through May 1 at the Park Square Theater in Saint Paul, MN.