The shifting sands: "Atacama" by HUMANITAS PLAY LA Alum Augusto Amador premieres at Teatro Paraguas
The Atacama Desert is the driest desert on earth. Taking up more than 41,000 square miles west of the Andes mountains, its stony and sandy terrain dotted with salt lakes and felsic lava flows has been compared to that of Mars. In 2010, the skeletons of 75 prehistoric whales — believed to be about two million years old — were unearthed in a corner of the desert. The Atacama is a popular tourist destination for its spectacular night skies, and home to the La Silla and Paranal observatories, one of which is visible in the distance to Ignacia and Diego. They are two characters in Atacama, a play by Augusto Federico Amador that has its world premiere at Teatro Paraguas on Friday, Sept. 7.
In addition to fossilized whale bones, seashells, and other ancient matter, pieces of human skeletons were buried under the thin sand in the mid-1970s, after Gen. Augusto Pinochet tortured and murdered tens of thousands of Chileans for the crime of being communists. Mothers and other relatives of the disappeared, called the Women of Calama, search for bones by methodically digging into the desert floor. Their search has been going on for over 40 years. Numerous remains have been identified by lab tests, but the bones — a toe joint here, a finger there — have been bleached and scattered by the elements. At this point, it would be nearly impossible to find and reassemble a whole skeleton.
The Teatro Paraguas production of Atacama, directed by Juliet Salazar, stars Bernadette Peña as Ignacia and James Chavez as Diego. Ignacia’s son is among the missing, and she has been digging for his bones for years. Diego lost his daughter, but it is his first time in the desert. His wife, who has died, spent decades digging alongside the other Women of Calama, and he is trying to fulfill a promise he made to her. Ignacia and Diego live inside their grief, alternately unable and unwilling to look at certain truths from their pasts.
“For Ignacia, the bones are her treasure. She would probably dig forever to get her son back home,” Peña said. “She believes she’s Diego’s guide, but she needs his help as much as he needs hers.”
“She’s the one with all the experience, and Diego comes in as a rookie with no interest in being there,” Chavez said, adding, “The third character is the location. The sand, the desert. You have to realize where it’s taking place in order to get a deep sense of the tragedy and the despair that took place there.”
“Their relationship with the sand changes throughout the play,” Salazar said. “At the beginning, there’s more of a fixation or obsession with finding, with things coming to an end, with putting all the pieces together. And gradually, that frustration turns into a meditative enjoyment of the sifting, of the actual process of digging.”
There are many twists and turns in Atacama, as the past rears its head and demands a reckoning. Ignacia and Diego raised their children to share their values, which they do not question. Through the digging, Ignacia is atoning for some way in which she wronged her son — but she has failed to notice that she has turned her back on the living. Diego, a wealthy capitalist, wishes he could have given his daughter better advice, but blames his unhappy marriage on his wife’s obsession with digging. This is a form of tunnel vision regarding his own complicity. Time stretches and collapses in the desert, turning hours into days and days into weeks. It is an out-of-body concept that Peña likened to the feeling of waking up from anesthesia after major surgery — “that coming back to consciousness, and falling out, and coming back.”
The play is highly symbolic and metaphorical, grounded in the shifting sand by the sort of history most societies dread the idea of repeating. Salazar, who was one of seven members of the committee that selected the play for production at Teatro Paraguas, said each member had their own reasons for choosing it — but it was clear to everyone that, despite its nature as historical fiction, the play feels related to current U.S. politics.
“There’s a universal tone to the script that is particularly relevant during this presidential administration,” Salazar said. “What’s happening is worrisome for a lot of people, particularly those who know their history. We know that this has happened more than once — and not just in Chile. What’s particularly interesting about this play is that though the politics are there, the human story is what’s really up front.”
Chavez remarked on a big difference he sees between Pinochet’s government and that of President Donald Trump. “Under Pinochet, anyone who would expose themselves as corrupt was dealt with. Everything that was done there was done in secrecy. But here, the powerful go out of their way to expose themselves.”
Atacama includes a short pre-show of Chilean music and poetry written in the years just before or at the beginning of the Pinochet regime. JoJo Sena de Tarnoff performs “Mazúrquica Modérnica” by folk singer Violeta Parra, who died by suicide in 1967, and “Manifest” by Victor Jara, a teacher and musician who was assassinated by Pinochet’s regime. James Stake will recite a poem by Pablo Neruda, “Gautama Cristo.” Neruda’s death in 1973, long attributed to cancer, was in fact likely due to the machinations of Pinochet’s men, who may have poisoned him.
“The pre-show is going to lead the audience into some of the elements of Chilean culture that are not present in the script,” Salazar said. “The play begins in the middle of these people’s lives as they are living them in the moment, so we wanted to give a sense or feel for the culture in which all of this revolution started.” ◀
▼ Atacama, a play by Augusto Federico Amador, world premiere
▼ 7:30 p.m. Friday, Sept. 7; 7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m. through Sept. 23; gala performance Saturday, Sept. 8 ($25), includes a reception with the playwright
▼ Teatro Paraguas, 3205 Calle Marie
▼ $20 general admission, atacama.brownpapertickets.com, or call the box office at 505-424-1601 to reserve and pay at the door.