tlf news Vol. xii #2 June, 1991

A Plank and a Passion

On top of the hill the wind blew briskly. The sun shone past the scattered clouds in the sky. I could see the mountains on the far side of the valley, and a stretch of the Ulua River shone silver-brown in the late afternoon light. Between the river and me stretched the city of El Progreso, the dirt, the disorder, the poverty muted by the distance and the angle. The flaming orange of the acacias, the green coconut palms and maradiaga trees masked many of the scars of the city; roads, oddly, took on a certain reason, occasional parallels and right angles making a seeming order of what I know to be the chaos of winding mud paths and gravel roads.

The Rio Pelo rushed from a gorge in the mountains behind me, still breaking and tumbling below me as it flowed over the last ledges of the mountains and into the city, becoming muddier and more sullen as it slowed and settled into middle age in the valley in front of me. It was late afternoon and most washing had been finished, but I could still make out many forms in the river below: waders, washers, fishers, all taking advantage of the cleaner upper reaches of the river as it intermittently pooled between chutes and falls on its way to the valley. Long dark Indian hair was cleaned, babies were dunked and soaped, seines were hurled and furled in search of the river's few minnows. An occasional bus could be heard sucking vigourously against the mud, and two hawks below me spoke to each other across the valley, while vultures circled and glided above me, below me, next to me. The feathers of their fingertips were visible from this angle, black-rimmed white fingers, touching and flavoring the wisps and current, strong and delicate fingers speaking to the winds as a guitar player's speak to strings.

This subtlety of form was a stark contrast to the misshapen evil figures squatting over the fresh dead dogs on the roadside, ripping moist bloody flesh from steaming corpses. These vultures were Progreso. In the light of a sun low on the horizon, soft mists were appearing between the green below, further obscuring the reality, an impressionistic painting of ovens in a death camp.

teatro la fragua lives somewhere down in those muddy streets, under the corrugated tin roofs and coconut palms, next to the pigs and chickens, goats, cats, horses dogs, oxen and iguanas. It's a hot gritty theatre that grows out of this town, a theatre that can't afford the luxury of wiping the mud from its shoes, theatre that actually gains strength and meaning from that mud, one of the primeval elements of existence: earth, air, fire, water.

I walked back down the hill. I looked at the huts on this hillside and those I seemed almost able to touch on the hillsides across the hollows of the streams that bounce through the hills on their way to joining the Ulua River in the valley below. These shacks are mud-floored and as inhabited by chickens as by human beings. They hang on the hillsides in a child-like ignorance of gravity, precarious as snow on tiled roofs under a winter sun in other climes. The paths twisting through the hills are steep, the stream a few hundred feet straight down. What sort of trek must it be for those without a tap, hauling dirty laundry down, wet washed laundry and drinking water up? What will happen when the cholera appears? Why do we bother to do theatre in a place like this?

What is art? Is great art timeless? Is it universal? Is great art that which can be loved and appreciated by those willing to study and understand it, in China as much as in Argentina and in successive centuries? Is there a difference between great art and average art, and between good art and bad art, or is art only art if it is great?

There is general agreement over a wide range of works of art and artists. Michelangelo's David, Hamlet , Antigone , Shubun, Tikal, Joyce's Ulysses , the Bible, Mozart, et cetera, are firmly established as the highest, most nearly perfect expressions of the human race.

But let's look at an actor. He works hard at what he does, let's say, but doesn't get very far; he's lucky to get into the cast of amateur regional shows. If his performance is remembered after a show, it is by his wife and friends.

But then one night something happens. The combination of the right role, proper preparation, a magic pulse in the audience, all come together to create an electrifying night, an explosion of energy and emotion between the audience and actor. The actor knows it, the audience knows it. He touches a half-dozen people in the audience that night in such a way that they will never forget the meaning the performance had for them, that night and for years afterward.

It may never happen again. Never again can the actor recreate this moment.

But we still have this one night, a night which touched and even changed slightly the lives of a half dozen people, a night neither eternal nor universal, a night entirely local in time and place, unrecorded and unretrievable. Is this fleeting effort art?

Of course it is. For those people involved, in fact it is probably a far more meaningful art than any Beethoven or Picasso ever will be, it is for these people a higher art form than any Palestrina or Moliere ever will be. If this evening held up a mirror to their nature, as Shakespeare demanded of art, if it provided the catharsis that Aristotle deemed necessary, a sudden implosion of recognition and awareness and experience, then it was an evening of art. Not good art or bad art, high art or low art -- simply art.

Why do we do theatre in a place like Progreso?

When I reach home just before sunset a light airy rain begins to fall. I look back to the hills and see that in full sun a one-cloud storm was pounding my observation perch of the afternoon, producing a marvelous rainbow but in front of the mountains: huge and almost a complete arc. Because the mountains were behind it, I could pinpoint the base of the rainbow behind the power plant. It didn't end in the clouds or somewhere in the remote distance -- the vision I saw was at a very

While it's an old saw in the business that all you need to create drama is a plank and a passion, an occassional pontoon bridge would be of immense value, new brake shoes for the twelve-year-old truck would make more certain the arrival of the planks, a little gasoline for the portable generator helps illuminate the passion.

This is raw theatre. Gritty, tough theatre in a land inundated by hurricanes, deforestation, bananas, and poverty. Sometimes primitive theatre, theatre which finds it as important to train its audience as it is to train its actors; theatre which has to compete for its audience with machete duels, floods, harvests and a cultural illiteracy which has robbed these people of their proud Mayan heritage. Tenacious theatre, theatre which refuses to concede defeat in the face of washed out bridges, tenuous funding, moonscape highways, electrical blackouts. Theatre not for the delicate of sensibility nor for the easily daunted.

Why bother to do theatre in a place like Honduras?

3 actors, 2 musicians, bare stage. A deliberate entrance, strong disciplined introduction, and the sudden hush of an audience involuntarily seized by the power of electric performers. The physical presence grabs the room and doesn't relent -- most of the audience has never known the human element to be capable of such raw personal power, power that comes from vision, inspiration, and much work, power that emanates from the soul and not from a gun, the power of hope, not of fear. Raw unfettered Honduran power.

The audience at first is not sure of this presence. A nervous incertainty grips the crowd, the actors feel it and their rhythms are rigid. Then, of course, the children save it: the honesty of children who don't know their hope has been hocked to a foreign lender, that their joy has been crushed by a military machine from outer space.

An icy-clean four-year old's laugh slices through the night, the scald of oppression eases and adults suddenly uncontrolably join the little girl, actors struggle to maintain character, a musician on stage can't help a hopelessly ridiculous grin as the single shiver of coldly bare laughter continues above the rest. Of course, the child has saved it. A four-year old has revealed an impulse in every person, has taught her parents, her superiors, her betters, the basic lesson of life: joy is the first rebellion against the oppressors, the wildly revolutionary act, defiance of all the authority that says her life will be suffering. Laughter is this little girl's Boston Tea Party, her call to arms, her cheerful denial of Herod's power over her life.

The rain starts just as the show ends, light at first but quickly strong, breezy, with more regular lightning, people shuffling to any overhanging shelter. In the darkness the rain is invisible until the headlights of an approaching car cut through the dense rush of water crashing into the pavement. As the car nears the drops become more distinct, individual kernels of liquid popcorn exploding on the shiny machete road. The car passes and the rain again is an invisible presence, heard on the corrugated tin roof, felt with each gasp of the night air, but unseen. By the time the actors have changed out of costume and packed up the lights and gear it has diminished to a light mist. The drive home is cool and refreshing.

Why do we do theatre in a country that is as desperately poor as Honduras? Why do theatre in the midst of all the needs that are so much more obvious? Theatre is never going to lower the infant mortality rate. Theatre will not save (nor even ease the pain of) that child dying of malnutrition, nor can it provide shelter from the rain and mud. Theatre is never going to change the world. But that child's laugh reminded us that teatre can fulfill another need perhaps as desperate: theatre can make a child laugh. Perhaps it can even give a child a spark of hope.

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