tlf news Vol. xiii #2 June, 1992

It's 11 pm, I Want a Soda, and There Isn't a 7-11 in Sight

My story about visiting teatro begins in early May when for the first time in my life I send a fax -- to a small theatre in Honduras. The fax man gives me a look that says, "You're joking, right?" A week later I call Jack. The theatre is in a state of transition as one of the lead actors, "Chito", has come down with tuberculosis. Somehow I doubt that Joseph Papp ever had to deal with TB, but for Jack it's just another day at the office. (I am told that Chito's recovery is going well, and he hopes to return to work sometime in late August). In talking to Jack, I am rather vague about what I wish to do with teatro and in Honduras, and so we decide that we'll figure it all out when I get there. But Jack does offer his one fear: "You don't want to go to the beach, do you?"

I get in on Thursday and miss the teatro's perfromance that night at a theatre festival in Santa Barbara. I meet Jack the next day, Friday, and as he is tied up for the weekend, he tells me: "If I were you, I'd go to the beach." (Gotta love the Padre). Tela is spectacular, and I return with a brilliant idea -- Teatro La Tela. Not quite the same ring as La Fragua, but for white sandy beaches some sacrifices have to be made.

The following weekend teatro is giving one of their EL EVANGELIO EN VIVO! (THE GOSPEL -- LIVE!) workshops on dramatizing the Gospels. This time it's off to the banana camps, a village called Urraco. (A big thanks to whoever is responsible for the beautiful new van, which makes travelling comfortable, a word not enough used when describing travel in Honduras). Journeys here are measured in time, not miles. Our forty-five minute drive is along back country dirt roads that feature mini-Grand Canyons disguised as pot-holes. At times we slalom our way down the road trying to find the path of least resistance, one which won't remove an axle from the van. In some spots Edy is able to open it up, and dust rises like incense from the road. Waterways are crossed on railroad bridges. Long leafy banana trees flow down the side of the road, soon followed by lush African palm trees which fan out in diagonal rows. I soak up the beauties of the Honduran countryside.

Urraco is a broken-down collection of houses with a main street and a small central park that is teeming with kids, cows, dogs, roosters, an occassional horse, and an angry street gang of hogs. One has a pierced ear, or at least a large hole in his ear, and the gang of four rumbles from one side of the square to the other. Soon it becomes frightening and unsettling to watch as a large beast of a hog tries to flatten a younger, little pig which squeals in pain and fear. The animals live out the metaphor of Honduran life: the repression of the weak by those with the power.

This weekend's course is taught by Edy, Guillermo, Moncho, Obdulio, and Edilberto. Moncho looks out for me, and takes me as his roommate for the weekend. All of the teatro members are friendly and kind to this Gringo who unfortunately has forgotten most of his Spanish. Though my comprehension level is limited, Edy makes sure that I am present at all the meetings, both our staff meetings and the general sessions. When I joke that I am going to the local carnival during the Saturday workshops, Edy gives me the look that says, "If you want to be a part of teatro la fragua, you better be ready to work." After five years of conducting workshops, one might get lax and just go through the motions, but clearly the teatro members enjoy their work and take it seriously. Hopefully, this professional attitude and the pride of doing a good job will rub off on the kids.

When working with the campers, the directors often use comedy to make their point, but also get tough when they have to get tough. In general, the kids both respect and like their la fragua leaders. One problem which the leaders must face is the lack of literacy -- literacy and illiteracy are nearly equal in Honduras -- and so these Gospel dramatization courses double as lessons in reading, both in how to read and in making sense of what has been read. Even the older campers, those surrounding the cusp of twenty, struggle with their reading. In general, the campers might be classified as semi-literate; most seem to be able to read but it is a chore to do so. The goal of the course is to teach the campers how to do it themselves, to continue dramatizing the Gospels on their own initiative, which hopefully will also spur them to practice their reading. Another off-shoot is that the dramatization requires cooperation, the uniting for a common cause. The directors stress the need for discpline and the need to respect each other. The gains of the course are many.

In Urraco, the campers and the teatro staff are staying dormitory-style in a small complex that is a combination mission, school, and church. To try to make sense of the abstraction we call the Third World, I offer the equivalent of our routine of the morning shower. In my fractured Spanish I ask Moncho where he had bathed and how was I supposed to do it. The bath is a string of six outhouse-like cubicles. (The toilet is merely the commode, no seat, no back, no toilet bowl, and when you're done, grab a pail of water and pour, thereby flushing the system. But it beats going to the bathroom in the street, which sadly is not unheard of amidst the poverty of Honduran life.) A couple of the cubicles are for bathing. I open the door to the "shower room". Flies buzz in an empty cubicle with a drain pipe in the center of the cement floor. Time to go back to Moncho as el Gringo does not know what to do or if he's even in the right place.

After further instructions, I realize that the process is as follows: Take a bucket, go to the well. Fill the bucket, go to your cubicle. Any clothes get hung on the nails. Then it's simply a matter of using a scrub pad and splashing water on yourself. Dampen the hair a little bit, and apply the shampoo. Now it gets tricky. Without throwing out your back, hoist the bucket of water and pour some onto your head, trying to rinse out the shampoo. Repeat as necessary. (On the last day, el Gringo estupido discovers a handy little bowl that greatly facilitates all transfer of water from bucket to cleansing of the body and hair. But any way you look at it, it ain't Vic Tanny.)

The Hondurans must work long days in part because it takes so long to do even the basic tasks. Drinking water has to be carted in from somewhere else. Bikes, buses and walking are the usual means of transportation and thus even daily travel is time-consuming for the Honduran lucky enough to have a job.

The dormitories have two sets of bunkbeds. If you want a mattress, bring it with, because here the wooden frame is joined by criss-crossed "plastic string" with a thin mat placed atop it. In Honduras, this type of "string" bed, as well as hammocks, provide the main sleeping arrangments for those who don't have to sleep on the floor. The first night of camp, the heat is nearly unbearable. Perched on one my bedposts is a large tree roach that just flew in from one of those Japanese monster movies. I make a deal with it: "You stay away from me, I'll stay away from you." The tree roach leaves me alone, but it's all-you-can-eat Gringo for the mosquitoes. (Sure hope none of them have malaria). Throughout the night I toss and turn, and amidst this fitful sleep, the mosquitoes continue their feast.

The first night of the course (Thursday) was introduction; Friday we get into the meat of the workshop. A basic day is: Breakfast at 7. At 8 we all meet in the centro for a prayer and a song, and then split into two groups for physical warm-ups. It's clear that basic physical exercises are new to many of the children. Miming exercises are also done. After an hour of these exercises, they split into four groups, each under a la fragua director. Each group will work on dramatizing an event of the Gospel. The basic steps of the process are defined: 1) Read the text which you wish to dramatize. 2) Analyze the text. (Basic questions of who, what, when, and where.) 3) Assign parts to people. 4) Put it on its feet -- i.e., rehearse, rehearse, rehearse. 5) Present the piece. (In this instance, first for the other campers, and then a public performance on Sunday.) The groups analyze the text until refreshment break, then rehearse for abour an hour and a half till lunch. After lunch break, it's more exercises, rehearsal, break, more rehearsal, until the five o'clock dinner. During the breaks, some kids can be seen going over their lines.

There is a night meeting; the groups present their work, and a general group discussion follows, over what they've seen and what they've learned, both from the dramatizations and from the day's work. Almost half of the kids volunteer a response. The directors give them pointers about the need for concentration and discipline, values needed for their dramatizations and for their daily lives.

The course is hard work, and on Saturday one clearly sees the tiredness of both the campers and the staff. The refreshment breaks are much needed as at this time of year the temperature is measured by the number of shirts one goes through in a day. There are more sweat glands than I ever dreamed existed, and my body is a large pore against which no anti-perspirant would dare think of being effective. And though I am only an observer, it's a three-shirt day. One of the more enjoyable exercises, for both campers and observer, is the miming of a tug-of-war. The teatro director dictates which side is winning, and so cooperation is not only amongst each team but also with the other team. It is cooperation, not competition; an accented point throughout the workshops. Finally the mimes are tense with the struggle, the director "cuts" the rope and all fall to the ground.

During the day, I hop from group to group, taking notes of what transpires; my lack of Spanish means that I only pick up the physicalization of what occurs. In this way I am not unlike the illiterate la fragua audiences who rely more on what they see than what they hear. In the episode where Peter declares that Jesus is the Messiah (Mk 8:27-33), Jesus wears a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles T-shirt. He is a 21-year-old male with a mustache and spiky hair. Over at another group a 47-year-old female Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan. Then I wander over to see Jesus calm the wind and the waves (Mk 4:35-40). Here, Jesus is a thin 12-year-old Honduran boy with a Kodak smile. When he rises and calms the stormy sea, it's a moment of magic. After lunch I play volleyball with Jesus.

For the first day's work there is a one-page typed script of a Gospel passage. (It is the text broken into the story-theatre format of a narrator plus whoever speaks in the passage). The second day they use the Bible itself, the same way in which they'll do it on their own. (At course's end, the teatro directors hand out calendars listing the scripture passages for each day of the liturgical year).

Sunday is the day of the final showings; each group will present its two passages at a Mass in El Cayo. It's about a half-hour drive. The new van comfortably seats fifteen people, while another 20(!) go in a pick-up truck, 17 of them in the back. The journey is again along rugged roads and through spectacular scenery. From a picturesque railroad bridge you glance down into a large river where children swim, men bathe, and women wash clothes. We turn off the main road and cross a dilapidated wooden bridge. We pass a few houses and then disappear into the depths of the jungle. We wind and turn our way along unmarked rocky roads, and I swear that at any moment we'll encounter Stanley and Livingston.

When we are as far from human habitation as I can imagine, we come into El Cayo, a collection of houses of people who work in the banana fields. People flock by the main well situated next to the small hexagonal church and the obligatory soccer field. (You haven't seen soccer until you've seen a game played on a field carved out of the forest of banana trees). After Mass, there are dramatizations by the campers. The teatro directors sing a beautiful "Our Father" written for and taught to them by Richard Clawson. (As they say in Chicago, or at least Milwaukee, "You done good, Richard.")

Afterwards, staff and campers go to a neighboring house for one last meal together. When I enter the house, I nearly step on a chicken which squawks away in fright. Here in this house where chickens, hogs, and dogs run through the yard or scruffle along the dirt floor, I realize that my photo opportunity is their harsh reality. Over on one side Edy talks to Enna, a 20-year-old who works at the mission complex. Like most Hondurans, she is very friendly, one of those who went out of her way to fight through the language barrier to talk to me. As I watch her talking quietly to Edy, sorrow fills me. Here is an intelligent, friendly, 20-year-old woman with a high-school education but without a real future. Her present job of household labor barely pays enough to live on; "savings account" is a foreign word to the vast majority of Hondurans. She would like to go to the U.S. to work and live with her sister, but she can't get a visa. She has more education than most Hondurans, but the opportunities just are not there. And so I worry about what's going to happen to her, my Honduran friend. Yet Enna is a happy person who knows the value of family, friends, and making the best of a difficult situation. It's a wonderful trait shared by many Hondurans.

As a writer, the images of Honduran daily life overload my senses. In my short time here I have seen too many amputees and too many naked children. But I have also seen the unmitigated joy of a soccer game played beneath and amidst palm trees on a beach in a run-down village with sticks forming the makeshift goals. In Honduras, amidst the rampant poverty and the struggle to survive, a quiet beauty rises up. It is the beauty of the land and the beauty of the people. I don't know if it's just beacuse I'm a Gringo, sort of a freak show in town (walking down the street I get almost as much attention as Michael Jordan), but the Honduran people are the friendliest that I've ever met. While wandering around looking for the theatre building, a woman in a car stops and asks if I need help. When I go to El Salto to swim in a picturesque river in the mountains, the kids swarm over to me and invite me to play with them in the river -- another magical moment. It does not take much time in Honduras to see the wonders of the land and the wonders of the people. Now I know why Jack is here. I also know that

No, no, no basta rezar. (No, it's not enough to pray).
Hacen falta muchas cosas (It also takes a lot of other things)
Para conseguir la paz. (To move towards peace).

--John Fleming
(9 June 92)

P.S.: A quick anecdote. I invite Jack to dinner. The first restaurant we try is open, but there's no food as the cook didn't show up. We go to another restaurant which just closed (6:30 pm). But then the owner, being a friend of Jack, re-opens so that we can eat. When we're finished, I give Jack the money to pay. He pays the owner and then he pockets my change. Jack is clearly run-down from all his hard work and he doesn't realize what he's done (until he reads this). I'll just take it as a sign that the theatre still needs all the financial support it can get. So Jack, keep the change, and put me on the mailing list, because I like, admire, and respect what you and my friends at teatro la fragua are doing.

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