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I saw two plays in Pittsburgh this weekend. Both were ambitious projects performed by companies stretching themselves to their artistic limits. The first was a revival of  Passing Strange, a comedy-drama rock musical about a young African American’s artistic journey of self-discovery in Europe. This was performed choreographed by a young company made up of recent high school graduates and college students.

The other was Looking for Violeta an original opera based on the life of the Chilean folk singer Violeta Parra. Pablo Neruda introduced her authentic interpretation of Chilean folk music to the world. Joan Baez sang her songs and emulated her activism. And both performances this weekend attempted to answer the question of why does this particular play need to be done right now?

I’m arriving at a place in my own life where it seems to me that there are at least two ways, and undoubtedly more than that, to approach this challenge.  What I am most struck with at the moment is: that what we are viewing doesn’t have to be a teaching play, a Lehrstück as the Germans say but, something has to happened on the stage ,in the performance, to produce an interaction  with the worries, the yearnings, the deep righteous anger, and the pain that we carry with us and are trying to understand and act upon as we strive to understand figure out how to respond to this world in which we find ourselves.

This weekend I was carrying a lot. How can anything other than the shootings in Texas and Ohio be on anyone’s mind at this moment? What is happening to my country, my world and how do we stand up to the politicians who no longer represent we the people, the judges who have so sense of justice, the utterly cynical, corrupt and self serving President-If I sound angry and frustrated about what is happening here I am. When I am lumped with the people Donald Trump calls the enemies of America, I am filled with rage and overcome by the injustice that has been foisted on the United States.

There always have been pockets of great good to be found in this country. There always have been pockets of bigotry, corruption, unconscionable greed and race hatred. But, for most of my 73 years on this planet, I felt we were  moving forward to form that more perfect union. Until now. Now for the first time I am frightened. Watching Looking for Violeta Saturday night and hearing once more the BBC recording of the attack by the US supplied fighter jets fighting on the side of the coup d’état,  attacking La Moneda, the seat of the President of the Republic of Chile, listening to Allende’s farewell speech in which he declared he would never resign or leave the building alive, were  painful reminders of where we may be heading today.

My feelings grew darker all through the next day, and then I watched the BBC feed of the vigil in El Paso. This was the sacred piece of holy ritualistic theatre that brought me to a better place of understanding-of where we were and what we could do. A description follows:

“Butterflies were released, flying between and fluttering around people’s heads. It was a reminder of the grim list of names this city joins.People held their banners again as they left the rally. One of them read: “Shaken, not broken.

“El Paso is not the kind of place where this happens. That’s what its residents repeat, over and over again.

The queue’s to give blood to the injured, with people happily waiting for hours? That’s El Paso.

Coming out in their thousands at a candlelit vigil to sing Amazing Grace? That’s El Paso. A community coming together in one of its darkest moments to vow this can never happen again? That’s El Paso.”

And I remembered another line from Looking for Violetta:

“El pueblo unido jamás será vencido”

The people united will never be defeated.

And that’s what’s on my mind today (August 5, 2019).


Jim Niesen


Author Irondale

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