From Colombia with Love

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1928 is an infamous year in Colombian history. In the town of Ciénaga near Santa Marta, Colombia, on November 12, 1928, a strike began when the workers of the United Fruit Company (now Chiquita) ceased work until that company agreed to grant them dignified working conditions. After several weeks of strikes, in which the United Fruit Company refused to negotiate with the workers, the conservative government of Miguel Abadía Méndez sent the Colombian Army in against the strikers. The strikers were slaughtered, in an infamous event now known as the Banana Massacre. Historians have debated the total number killed, although a final number has never been reached. General Cortés Vargas, who orchestrated the massacre, admitted to killing 47 striking workers, but the exact number will probably never be known.

This mephitic memory of former violence, swathed in a mirage of misperception and doubt, is the most infamous in a long succession of such similar events that haunt Colombians to this day. Since the massacre, authors, poets and playwrights have grappled with the Banana Massacre’s legacy, and the broader issues surrounding Colombia’s troubled past. Teatro Experimental de Cali (TEC) is a collective of playwrights, actors, dancers, musicians, stage designers and students exploring new and expressive approaches to Colombian theatre. Founded in 1955 by the poet Enrique Buenaventura and a group of students at the Instituto Departamental de Bellas Artes, TEC has a long and fruitful heritage. A key contribution is their method of “creación colectiva” (collective creation), in which all the participants of the play are involved with the play’s staging. This includes the audience, who play a vital role in each performance. While TEC’s works address various historical and social issues, their work remains poetic and innovative without losing popularity.

Teatro Experimental de Cali (TEC) is a collective of playwrights, actors, dancers, musicians, stage designers and students exploring new and expressive approaches to Colombian theatre

Much like Shakespeare’s blending of the comedic and the cosmological in his plays, TEC’s work treads a fruitful course, exploring political commentary via a popular forum. A confluent approach comes to the fore in the work of Luis Vargas Tejada. Born in Bogatá in 1802, Tejada came from a poor family but had a natural talent for writing. As a child, he could already compose poetry in multiple languages. His seminal play, The Convulsions, observes the influence of the Spanish Golden Age theatre on Colombian theatre practices, highlighting troubling aspects of Colombia’s colonial past. With the erosion of indigenous theatre practices in place of Spanish Renaissance drama, a rich and historic aspect of Colombia’s cultural history has been lost.

Today, Colombian theatre still embraces a spirit of passion, freedom and education. Joining the historic themes of violence, conquest and liberation, are new stories to be told. New and burgeoning Colombian playwrights touch on prescient topics, ranging from immigration to climate collapse. In contemporary Bogotá, the city’s biennial theatre bonanza, the Festival Iberoamericano de Teatro de Bogotá, provides an explosion of ebullient drama every other year. Máxima seguridad, one of the festivals mainstays, examines the injustices of the Colombian penal system, while rural troupe, Teatro Itinerante del Sol, bring their unique show, Arikundari vengo caminando y estoy viva, which explores the need for small towns to have their own voice. Colombian theatre is inextricably bound to the issues that define its contemporary national conversation, with the Latin American country remains a whirling vortex of political commentary, rich tradition and resplendent beauty.

Today, Colombian theatre still embraces a spirit of passion, freedom and education

If one theme defines Colombian theatre, it would be the capacity for open discourse. Seemingly any issue can be discussed freely. The company Medea73, in their innovative production, Siete años de silencio, explores the immigrant experience through tableaus featuring diverse casts and cutting-edge technology. Immigration, both into and out of Colombia, is an issue that defines the national debate, as it does in many countries today. However, unlike much contemporary political discourse, Colombian theatre companies aspire to relay the nuance of the immigrant experience, highlighting voices often silenced or sidelined in the debate. By placing the onus squarely on those experiencing displacement and injustice, the debate is more justly realigned. Although Colombia’s history may be troubled, Colombian playwrights and theatre casts and crews certainly do not shy away from the past. Rather, they embrace it.

Image Credit: C Arango via Wikimedia Commons

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