In the revelatory theater piece “El año en que nací (The year I was born),” at On the Boards, an appealing group of Chileans in their 20s and 30s are ordered to line up according to their parents’ political leanings — with the line running from the radical left to the extreme right.
But what if your father was in the military and just following orders during the brutal dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet? Where do you stand? What if your leftist activist parents went into exile in the U.S. or Sweden — while some of their compadres stayed in Chile, at great risk, to work against the regime? What if your mother was gunned down in the street by anti-terrorist militia?
Ranking quickly turns into serio-comic wrangling. But the exercise makes a resonant point — a point about the absurdity and futility of measuring people’s political ideology and actions by one standard, when each individual carries their own complex and ambiguous story — their own set of circumstances, their own strategy of navigating the most turbulent of times.
In this gracefully composed, compelling docudrama from the rising Argentine writer-director Lola Arias, presented in Spanish with supertitles, the performers use an assortment of engaging postmodern theatrical tactics to convey the biographies of their own fathers and mothers.
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Flecked with humor and compassion, but devoid of melodrama, the two-hour piece is an act of personal and historical reclamation. It is also an act of discovery and bravery — given an elder generation’s reluctance to dredge up the Pinochet era in Chile (1973-90) when several thousand people were murdered or “disappeared” due to their suspected leftist beliefs, many more were tortured by government forces and at least 200,000 Chileans fled into foreign exile.
Remarkably, given the gravitas of the time, Arias and her touring company approach it by turning the On the Boards stage into a kind of playground. The players occupy it like a posse of frisky, resourceful schoolchildren, following their curiosity about the grown-ups who made them who they are.
For a concise lesson in Chilean history — from the 1970 election of socialist leader Salvadore Allende to the rise and fall of Pinochet and the stable current democracy — projected news photos are marked up with scrawled drawings and arrows for emphasis.
To chart the Chilean Diaspora in the 1970s and ’80s, cast members sketch a chalk map on the floor, with crisscrossing lines of flight paths.
There’s a lighthearted line dance to a Spanish-language version of the pop song “Sunny” — choreographed with all the fake giddiness manufactured by ‘70s TV variety shows everywhere.
And when individuals step up to microphones to recite what they’ve learned about their parents, they embellish with pictures from family photo albums, love letters, news clippings, military edicts, radio bulletins, old clothing.
Clearly, Arias chose her cast carefully, to represent a wide range of backgrounds. One man grew up with a dad who supported Pinochet, even though he was unemployed for much of his regime.
One woman had parents whose radical group robbed banks and military schools, and engineered countrywide power blackouts as protests. Another man’s mother was a “trophy wife” to a high-ranking lawman, and she’s glimpsed in a chilling photo of police wives attending a tea at the Pinochet country mansion.
Yet as the show recounts a Chile where anti-Communist hysteria and global economic interests fostered a deeply polarized society and violently repressive military rule (covertly supported by the U.S.), much of the show’s text is delivered with bemused dispassion.
Actually, the often matter-of-fact tone of “El año en que nací” is crucial to its gradually mounting impact. Arias creates room for our own responses, rather than indicating what we should be feeling about morally ambiguous situations, and their effect on children. The sympathies of the ensemble clearly run against the junta, and toward those who risked all to fight it But sectarian leftist parents are no more romanticized than reactionary parents.
Just as the narratives get wearying (there’s no intermission), Arias saves the most shattering for last. We hear about the horrific murder of a dissident mother. And the troubling search for a mysterious, long-absent father. (That saga is still unfolding, we’re told.)
In the end, what a relief it is when the children shift into adults, and get to break loose, buoyantly update us on their own lives, and assert their own identities with a liberating thrashing of electric guitars.
Somehow, they have survived the traumatic legacy of the previous generation. They have survived the truth, and now they can share it.
Misha Berson: email@example.com