tlf news Vol. xiv, #3 September, 1993

Back to the Future

I. On the Plane.

I write leaning against a cheap compostion notebook bought in one of New York's bargain warehouses, distributed from North Carolina but of course made in Brazil. Don't all our bargains come from the third world?

My nagging fears of losing my Spanish continue. For the past few weeks I've been dreaming the same dream. I'm back at la fragua speaking Spanish (a good sign) but Swahili keeps coming out (not a good sign). The two years in Kenya seem to have cleared Spanish off the brain shelf labelled "other languages" and substituted it with the ultimate esoteric commodity. I don't think I'll run into too many Swahili speakers in El Progreso.

The stewardess asks me "¿Que quiere tomar, Señor?" A good sign: at least I look the part. I respond "Jugo." She replies "¿Coca? ¿Coca Cola?" Not a good sign. I repeat "Jugo de naranja." She brings me an orange juice. A very good sign.

My mind races as I fill out the customs form. I don't have a tourist card or a visa number. Did I forget to get one? Didn't my travel agent tell me I didn't need one? The old lady sitting next to me since Miami who ordered the low-fat meal after polishing off a bag of potato chips doesn't have one either. A good sign. (At the moment she's eating both her and her husband's chocolate mint squares.)

What will customs be like? The cassette player for the teatro, safely stowed under the seat in front of me, is the perfect height for a foot rest. I've decided that if they ask me if I will be taking it with me (so as to be sure that I won't sell it on the black market) I will just respond "¡Claro!" -- one of those wonderful Spanish words that can mean "yes" without your ever having to say it.

Last time I had to give a customs official a blank Maxell XLII for his daughter so I could get into the country without paying a tax on the other ten in my bag. This year I put the cassettes deep inside my duffle bag in a Robbins plastic bag under my underwear, and I have a cassette ready in my carry-on to give away. This is the cassette that was defective and squeaked while I was trying to record Ella Fitzgerald on it. I hope his daughter will like half an Ella album. The other stuff on Jack's shopping list, which I received the day before I left Boston for New York, should all get through without any problem. I couldn't find the tubes for the amplifier -- the salesman told me they were obsolete and that they would cost more than the amp itself. I hope that's not the shape of things to come.

As we begin our descent into San Pedro Sula (the airline abbreviation is SAP!) the grey-blue water wrinkling in the wind looks like elephant skin. As we reach land I remember a friend who, looking out over the banana plantations, mistook the plastic covers on the bananas for white shirts and said to himself, "Wow! Look at all the campesinos working in the trees!" The formerly green hills are open brown wounds from the deforestation and cocoa-colored splotches from where the Río Ulúa has overflowed stain the valley. Does this mean that Barrio San Martín is under water?

II. A Day Later.

The apprehension of the last few days was put into its proper context. Customs was a breeze. It's what's waiting on the other side that never is. Jack and Oscar were there to meet me. Leaving the airport we went directly to San Pedro Sula to the hospital. Oscar's sister-in-law was hit by a drunk on a motorcycle on her way home from a medical call on her bicycle and now she's in a coma. Poverty and the violence it breeds are never a good recipe for a long and happy life. Oscar's wife Rosa, the new (to me) secretary at the theatre, is taking care of things at this end. We leave her and Oscar at the hospital and Jack and I go back to the theatre.

They're repairing the highway between San Pedro and Progreso. What's that about having to tear down before you build up? It's definitely a mess. In Progreso I get the same feeling you do when you see a nephew you haven't seen for six years. You're not quite sure if he's gotten taller or you've gotten smaller. There has been a lot of building and there is a claustrophobia in the new cement "corridors" of the city and a choking on the dust that's kicked up from the drying mud washed down from the hill with the onslaught of the rains and the flooding of the river.

At la fragua things are moving along with the same ordered chaos. The planting which was done six years ago has grown and blossomed into a beautiful grove in which the theatre nestles. When we arrived yesterday afternoon the actors were doing various things in the office and backstage while the children's ballet class was occupying the stage area. Memories came back of building the first ballet barre with the rail from the old swimming pool. Now they have four free-standing barres, mirrors permanently mounted on a stand with rollers on the legs, and lots of little kids on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons.

Today the fragueños are getting ready for a presentation of their new work, Alta es la Noche. The first job of the day was sweeping yesterday's dust off the stage and seats. (Try and get union actors to clean their own space!) Then they have about 45 minutes for a group physical and vocal warm-up. The music and singing have gotten much better. I was delighted to hear that the music in the play was written by Edilberto and Obdulio.

There was something chilling about watching this play for the first time. With it, the group has realized one of its primary aims. Here were Honduran actors, performing a script they themselves adapted from a novel by a Honduran author about a crucial period of Honduran history. The theatre has forged something unique to this place and has come up with a strong work that the audience not only enjoys but appreciates. It's exciting.

The first song epitomizes the feeling. Based on a poem of David Moya Posas, the actors sing a lively melody in a tone almost of jubilation, repeating the chorus "on roads of death", telling the story of Francisco Morazan's defeat. Any other culture would sing in moans and dirges. But here where misery is part of day-to-day life, they won't let death have the last word.

III. A Few Weeks Later.

Deep in the middle of the temporada (season). A lot has passed. Rosa's sister passed away (Was it John Stuart Mill who wrote that "For the mass of mankind, life is nasty, brutish, and short"?) and Oscar and Rosa will raise her child. The highway to San Pedro is worse than ever: an obstacle course that makes you feel like you're driving through a Mad Max film.

I'm amazed at how much the fragueños have done with music and dance. Here spectacle is not dependent on huge sets or special effects or computerized lights and lazers. With what they have as their individual instruments they create the spectacle in movement, in music and in spirit. In Richard Clawson's "Padre Nuestro", sung in "Los Motivos del Lobo", they strike harmonies I never dreamed they would achieve seven years ago as I listened to them struggle through the simplest of rounds (fighting with each other all the way through, of course).

To see the way they have matured as dancers is equally exciting. I always knew Oscar had the talent and Moncho had the determination to do good work, but Rigo and Chito really surprised me in their improvement. And despite the fact that he started dance training at 30, Guillermo holds his own in both dance/theatre pieces that form the heart of Sueños y Realidad ("Dreams and Reality"), the other new work in the fragua season. I'm anxious to see how the next few years challenge them even more and to see how the new actors grow. My principal job during the month has been to work with the group of new apprentice actors. It was a lot of fun working with them on their piece and their ability to add comic bits from improvisations impressed me.

Alta es la Noche played to full houses on the first two weekends despite the rain and continues to be well received in the schools at which it's playing during the week. Sueños y Realidad played to standing room only and on the first night received an applause that drowned out the company's traditional closing salute. Sueños is teatro la fragua at its best. There is something in it of reaching out to a fosssilized imagination, at the same time making one think and making one laugh. It's composed of five short pieces: two of them unique to Honduras, created by the fragueños under the direction of Anita González from New York; two of them Latin American; and the other is a short piece by Chekhov (!) sucessfully adapted to the Honduran reality. The works themselves grip the audience and the actors let their own personalities, their own rhythms, come through. They show their strength in the laughter, attention, and expression of the audience reaction.

IV. An Afterthought.

In 1986 I took a University course in the history of U.S./Latin American relations. When I told my professor (who had lived and studied in Chile) that I was going to Honduras to work with a theatre group, he threw up his hands and said, "I thought you learned something in my course. Don't you realize there is NO culture in Honduras?" Obviously, he hadn't yet heard of teatro la fragua.

George Drance sj

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