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.

An Interview with Sandra Oh – Transcript

Transcribed by Monty Cole, Artistic Programs Manager

SANDRA OH: I started — I went to theatre school. I went to the National Theatre School in Canada. And after that just did theatre. And then I took like a 17 year television hiatus (laughs). So I worked in television for about 17 years – I can’t believe I can say that.

So I want to go back. I want to go back to the – and also felt like after playing one character and doing work in television (which is a completely different medium than theatre, obviously) I wanted to go back and test myself.

I was really drawn to Death and the Maiden on numerous levels. Firstly, actually was working with Chay. I’ve known Chay for a long time and we met in Los Angeles almost twenty years ago. And I’ve worked with him.

He brought up Death and the Maiden and I was familiar with the play, but didn’t really know exactly what I was getting into. So that was kind of exciting too, but now having just gently started rehearsal of the play – you know, in some ways Chay got me here, but what the play is exposing and what the play, I feel, is trying to bring to light is, I think, essential for our advancement and understanding as humans.

Injustice and torture are happening now. You know, even though this play is gently based, basically, in Chile after the Pinochet era. And this play was done in the early 90s. We know that that’s decades ago, but it’s still relevant.

The diversity of the work and the faces that you’ll see potentially might not be ones that you see all the time. If Paulina looks like someone like me, what country is this? We’re all talking in English, obviously, but what country is this? When they see Raul come on stage as my husband, suddenly, what country is this? Even when John comes on – what country is this?

I hope that the audience will have the experience that I know we’re having in the room which is of discovery and horror and sadness and anger. I hope they have that same experience because again, it’s to be alive. It’s to be awake and alive. I feel like that’s what we’re exploring in the room, that’s hopefully what we’re bringing to the play, and that’s hopefully what the audience will experience.

Access Dates for Death and the Maiden:
July 1, 7:30pm Audio Described
July 2, 2:00pm Word-For-Word Captioning
July 11, 7:30pm ASL Interpreted, Word-For-Word Captioning
July 12, 4:00pm Word-For-Word Captioning
July 13, 3:00pm Audio Described

Afterwords Aftershock: A Reflection

During one of the closing week performances of The Gospel of Lovingkindness, the following letter was left by a patron who walked out of the theater about midway through the performance; she will remain anonymous:

“Dearest cast and team,

The performance, set, and well, everything was just spectacular. I live in the chaos you have portrayed, and have experienced two murders due to gun violence in the last 36 days.

Sorry I walked out… but it was just too much. Continue being brilliant. This story is vital. Black and brown bodies need this hope. Our stories will not vanish.”

From a Town Hall on gun violence to a spoken word performance by youth in the South Side, our audiences responded to this play with personal stories of loss, anger, resilience, and hope at a time where gun violence has been nothing short of a day-to-day experience for many residents in the city. 

Many have burst into tears asking “why” and “how” – questions without easy answers. But as a theater committed to bridging the gap between our audiences and the larger themes presented in our productions, we offer the opportunity to talk about these issues as a collective, and find ways to move forward as a community.

After each performance, we held Afterwords (post-show) conversations where an average of forty patrons would stick around and openly share their experiences with violence, and the helplessness that is often paired with a problem too complex for short-term solutions.

Each night, there was at least one patron who had lost someone to gun violence, and it was common to hear shouting, cursing, and rambles of confusion as we tried to sort these thoughts as a group in a way that made sense, and in identifying ways of moving forward:

“How can I make a difference in these kids when I’m experiencing the same kind of systemic discrimination as an educator for being a fucking lesbian?!” shouted one patron.

“But what is the community going to do about …those boys with their pants below their waist?” asked another.

“And when the story of my son’s murder hit the news, and I read the comments that said ‘thank goodness’, ‘good riddance’, ‘another thug off the street’, and ‘where is his mother’, I thought to myself – she is sitting right here and she raised him to be better than that.” shared another. 

Usually, I would follow up on these statements by asking: 

“You just bore witness to this piece of theatre. And as you leave this building – what are you going to do? What are you going to take away with you from this moment? What small change can you make tonight or tomorrow to start the uphill climb towards the fight against gun violence?”

Some audience members couldn’t think of anything. Others said they would talk to their kids because it’s important to know the history of their city before attempting to write a new one. Regardless of their responses, our audiences left the theater thinking deeper about this issue and continuing the dialogue on the train, in their cars, and on the way home. This is civic dramaturgy – a community’s response to the work as it relates to their everyday lives.

When practicing theatre for social change, post-show conversations have to function a little differently than they do for other shows. The conversation becomes less about the work as an artistic entity, and acts more as a call-to-action. This was definitely an adjustment for patrons who anticipated hearing artistic choices from the director, playwright, and designers, and we have additional programs for those opportunities.

But for our audiences who choose to stay for our Afterwords conversations, we strive to provide a safe space to have an open dialogue about these complicated issues in hopes that our audiences leave with a sense of responsibility to make greater change in ways they never anticipated – theatre acting as a motor for social change.

So in moving forward with Death and the Maiden, a play stemming from political torture in Chile during Pinochet’s dictatorship and an issue still present among many communities today, we will look to our audiences for solution building.

 Through Public Programs events such as our Afterwords discussions, our main goal has always been to engage our audiences to think a little deeper about themselves and the world around them when they come to see a show at the historic Biograph Theater. Because now is the time. And we are the change.

– Isaac Gomez, Literary Manager


An Appropriate Summary

On November 14th, we opened Appropriate in front of a sold-out crowd. Throughout the entire run we hosted Public Programs to explore the many issues within this complex play. Here are some of our favorite photographs from the process.

Appropriate at Victory Gardens in Chicago

Cast members Keith Kupferer, Kirsten Fitzgerald, and Cheryl Graeff.

Appropriate at Victory Gardens in Chicago

Cast members Stef Tovar and Leah Karpel.

Appropriate at Victory Gardens in Chicago

The cast at Open Rehearsal, a subscribers-only event.

Appropriate at Victory Gardens in Chicago

Our set during tech week, prior to final dressing.

Appropriate at Victory Gardens in Chicago

Kirsten Fitzgerald and Stef Tovar on Opening Night.

Appropriate at Victory Gardens in Chicago

Director Gary Griffin, Stef Tovar, and Damon Kiely on Opening Night.

Appropriate at Victory Gardens in Chicago

Artistic Director Chay Yew and Playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins at an Opening Night VIP Event.

Appropriate at Victory Gardens in Chicago

Artistic Director Emeritus Dennis Zacek and Artistic Director Chay Yew.

Appropriate at Victory Gardens in Chicago

Tofu Chitlins Circuit while hosting their event Tuxedo Junction.