A play by a Chilean author who was exiled to Canada in the seventies is still relevant today to confront systemic racism.
Theatre St. Thomas’ usually active program of plays moved online with a Facebook live production of the play The Refugee Hotel by Chilean-Canadian author Carmen Aguirre on November 29. The event was a staged reading of the play; the actors were filmed to be broadcast.
The play is directed by recent St. Thomas graduate, Lucas Gutiérrez-Robert and is his directorial debut. Gutiérrez-Robert is a well-known actor in the Fredericton theatre community who has participated in many theatre productions over the last years, including the Notable Acts Theatre Festival, and in musical theatre productions like 2020’s Sweeney Todd.
Staging The Refugee Hotel probably also marks a first in “featuring a BIPOC cast and crew,” according to the information provided on Facebook. In the past, Gutiérrez-Robert has been outspoken about the racism and bullying he has experienced in Fredericton. Born of an Argentine father who grew up in a dictatorship, Aguirre’s story of immigration is certainly a familiar one to Gutiérrez-Roberts.
Aguirre’s family was forced into exile by the bloody coup d’état which brought General Pinochet into power in Chile in 1973. The play is autobiographical in nature since, much like the recent Syrian refugees, Chilean exiles stayed together in hotels while they waited for permanent lodging.
Aguirre’s play focuses on the difficulties of immigration: the need for community, the post-coup effects of the violence, and the nostalgia for “home” that the refugees experience.
Along with being a well-known actress, Aguirre is most known in Canada for her bestselling memoir about her life, Something Fierce: Memoirs of a Revolutionary Daughter, published in 2011 and winner of CBC’s Canada Reads in 2012.
Aguirre is also trained to run Theatre of the Oppressed workshops, a form of theatre that started in Brazil in the seventies and was meant to empower marginalized communities. Aguirre, like Augusto Boal, the founder of the movement, uses theatre as means of enacting social and political change. Gutiérrez-Robert also seems to see the value of this type of work by bringing the political play to Fredericton.
Bookended by a narration by the daughter Manuelita, the play featured a mosaic of characters on the screen who appeared and disappeared as needed in each scene. The rectangles of each characters’ screen were reminiscent of the rooms in the hotel, with Gutiérrez-Robert even making use of black screen as a sort of off-stage for the audience to listen into private conversations between Jorge and Flaca.
One of the main characters, Jorge, the father, was played by Reinaldo Cascante, an international student from Ecuador. Cascante was believable as the torture victim who converted to the socialist cause in the Chilean concentration camp and, in Canada, drowns his sorrows in alcohol.
His wife, Flaca, was played by Valeria Ascolese, an artist and educator born in Peru and based in Vancouver. An illuminating presence, even on the small screen, Ascolese showed much depth of character as the ex-activist broken mother who was a victim of sexual violence in the Chilean camps.
Rounding out the serious adult roles were Gabriela Guimaraes as Manuel, a character who starts off describing his graphic torture, and Cristina, a fervent activist played very well by Cari Guerrero. Calladita/Isabel, played by Ana Cañarte, was notable in her role as a mute woman who slowly regains her speech.
Despite the heavy materials covered —sexual violence, torture, suicide, the play contains some moments of levity.
Flaca and Jorge’s children were played by Sara Mamk, an international student from Chile, and Natalia Lanza. Actors Carter Scott and Raine O’Connor playing the characters of Bill, the hippie, and Pat, the social worker, were quite amusing in their attempts to convey their faulty language ability. The funny Gabby Carranza plays Juan, a character who eventually finds work in Canada dressing up as a chicken.
The play also featured a number of cueca dancing interludes by actress Natalia Lanza. Cueca is a traditional dance from Chile that is also practiced in other countries of the Southern cone.
Gutiérrez-Robert was courageous to tackle such a complicated play to be broadcast online but this troupe rose to the challenge to provide a much-needed reminder of the difficulties of immigration.
Sophie M. Lavoie is an editorial board member of the NB Media Co-op.