Death and the Maiden: A Borderless Future

by Isaac Gomez, Literary Manager

In response to HowlRound’s recent soft launch of Café Onda, I crafted the following response to Luis Alfaro’s (Mojada, Oedipus el Rey) beautiful reflection: “A Borderless Future.”  With Death and the Maiden closing to critical acclaim, the audience responses to the work were potent, timely, necessary, and thought provocative. With this idea of a “borderless future”, public programming and post show discussions for Death and the Maidenset out to do just that: break down borders and invite our patrons to share a space with survivors of torture.

This was my response to Luis’ reflection:

To hear that the soft launch of the refined Café Onda begins with a series of cross-generational responses reflecting on the powerful bridge-building that occurred during the 2014 TCG National Conference: Crossing Borders thrills me – especially because this year’s TCG Conference was my first.

A necessary and exciting component of what the Latina/o Theatre Commons refers to as El Movimiento, it is through this kind of archiving and reflection that we are able to take our histories as a community and use these testimonies as a springboard to the next generation of diversity and inclusivity within the broader American theatre conversation.

As a young leader of color (a Tejano by way of El Paso, Texas) I must say that Luis’ reflection on a “borderless future” is one that resonates deeply within me through my upbringing as a border kid, my education as a UT Austin alum, and my current profession as the new Literary Manager and curator of Public Programs at Victory Gardens Theater in Chicago.

I have to say, this concept of “crossing borders”, “a borderless future”, and “diversity and inclusion” through an institutional lens is best demonstrated through Victory Gardens’ recent production of Ariel Dorfman’s Death and the Maiden.

I would argue that not only is Dorfman’s play a relevant testimony to what he himself considers a necessary and present-day dialogue, the level of involvement the actors had in conversation with torture survivors and our public programming lends itself to support this very idea of a borderless future.

As the direct liaison between our patrons, playwrights, and performances, I facilitated a post-show discussion following every performance of Death and the Maiden with an average of 60-150 patrons interested in engaging in a larger conversation surrounding torture and rape. Our audiences were burning with the desire to speak, and many asked the very same questions we asked ourselves through this entire process:

“What is true justice?” “What am I supposed to do?” “Is there a point where torture survivors are able to forgive and let go?” “How can we support them?”

Difficult questions with even more complicated answers. Many argued; many cried. Many felt frustrated; many shared their own stories of rape, violence, and oppression. Some even took the opportunity to educate me on the sensitivity of bringing up these topics with rape survivors in the room, as someone who does not identify as a survivor, myself. The learning never stops, and I continue to push myself to be a better ally, advocate, and artist.

As I’ve mentioned before, in crafting Victory Gardens’ most comprehensive public programming for what I would argue as Ariel Dorfman’s timeless new play classic, I immersed myself in Chicago’s anti-torture movement because I wanted an opportunity to take the work that is already being done out in the community, and bring it to Victory Gardens. I attended rallies and marches, vigils and film screenings, and met the most inspiring individuals along the way – all with a story to tell, and all with a passionate mission to end torture.

As a theater with a direct mission to cross borders, we created an opportunity for our audiences to share in this advocacy and activism by creating opportunities to bear witness to the real testimonies of torture survivors walking and living in this city every day.

One of whom remains good friends with me today – a Guatemalan torture survivor and activist by the name of Matilde. A woman with a fierce heart and powerful story, she joined us in the rehearsal process by sharing her experiences with the cast, and participated in several public programs where she shared her story with our audiences. In hearing her testimony and the testimonies of other survivors, our patrons found a way to connect with an experience that most have not lived.

In short – we helped them cross a border.

We found entry points for different communities and groups, who might not inherently identify with those experiences. We found a way for us to stand in solidarity with survivors of torture, and use Death and the Maiden as a springboard toward solution building for an international concern that can sometimes feel insoluble.

A relevant, necessary, and empowering milestone for our theater – and one that our patrons are still responding to – producing Death and the Maiden in conjunction with its comprehensive public programming and community engagement is not only a contribution towards a borderless future, it is a contribution towards the future of the American theatre.