Carmen Aguirre interweaves rap, personal history, and magic realism for Anywhere but Here’s Latinx border story

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      It’s 1979, and a father and his two daughters are driving the long road back from Canada to Chile, the place they once fled as refugees. But when they arrive at the border between the U.S. and Mexico, they come up against a towering wall, and hey, is that 19th-century Bolivian revolutionary Juana Azurduy de Padilla?

      Yes, the present melts into the future and past in the epic new work Anywhere but Here, with local Chilean-Canadian playwright Carmen Aguirre interweaving rap, magic realism, and projections to explore the events that have haunted that desert frontier throughout history. Touchpoints include the rise of multinational maquiladora assembly plants in border cities, and self-appointed American vigilantes who patrol the southern reaches of Arizona and Texas today.

      “It’s always important to contex­tualize the stories we tell,” Aguirre tells the Straight over the phone from her Vancouver home. “If you’re going to tell a story about a bunch of refugees at the U.S.–Mexican border, it’s really important to take a wide shot about why and how it is that we got here.”

      “All of Latin America and the Caribbean have such a huge amount of historical complexity that people don’t really know about,” adds actor Michelle Rios, who plays several roles in the work, speaking in a separate interview from Edmonton. “I believe we have to tap into that historical context to understand why things are happening in the first place. There’s a reason why migrants are leaving Guatemala and Honduras.”

      The ambitious, years-in-the-making project will result in the largest premiere on a main stage by Canada’s Latinx theatre community. (Aguirre and Rios use the gender-neutral Spanish term for the Latin-American community—pronounced “Latin-ex”.) The show pulls together a cast of nine artists of colour, all of whom are first- or second-generation immigrants, as well as Canadian-via-Rwanda hip-hop artist Shadrach “Shad” Kabango, celebrated Mexican-American director Juliette Carrillo and designer Christopher Acebo, and Kenya-raised, Vancouver-based composer-percussionist Joelysa Pankanea.

      Aguirre, who developed the work through the Playwrights Theatre Centre, found the venue she needed when Electric Company Theatre invited her to come onboard as a core artist. And they encouraged her to fulfill her vision for Anywhere but Here on the large-scale Vancouver Playhouse stage, a space the Electrics are looking to reestablish for theatre.

      “This project demands a main stage,” says Aguirre, who’s written 25 plays, including The Refugee Hotel, The Trigger, and Broken Tailbone, as well as autobiographical books like Something Fierce: Memoirs of a Revolutionary Daughter. “Having been in the business for 30 years, I think it’s about time.…I think we’ve earned the right to be on main stages without compromising.”

      A vintage convertible, a border wall, and monarch butterflies all take on significance in the multimedia, time-jumping Anywhere but Here.

      Aguirre traces Anywhere but Here back 30 years, explaining it’s based on dreams she had in the early 1990s, when she was in theatre school at Studio 58.

      “I wrote them all down in my journal and illustrated them,” she says. “It was my psyche trying to work out my cultural identity, having spent my entire life in exile. And that’s where the surreal and magic parts of the play come in.”

      The plot reflects some of Aguirre’s life experiences. In 1973, Gen. Augusto Pinochet’s coup forced her family to flee Chile for Canada. And then, in 1979, when Aguirre was 11 years old, her mother and stepfather decided to take her and her younger sister back to South America to join the resistance. She bounced between strife-torn Peru, Bolivia, and Argentina, interspersed with return visits to Canada, over the next seven years.

      That story was recounted in detail in Something Fierce, the winner of CBC’s Canada Reads 2012—a book championed in the contest’s debate format by Anywhere but Here collaborator Shad. “I chose Carmen’s book, and then I found out she lived just up the street and we became acquainted,” says the Toronto-based rap artist, who had a place off the Drive in Vancouver at that time, joining a conference call with Aguirre.

      Aguirre immediately thought of Shad when she was struggling to write the dialogue for an Anywhere but Here character who escapes Honduras to make his way to the American border.

      “I was going to write a monologue and it came out as a kind of spoken word, and I thought, ‘That doesn’t sound like him, but it would sound great as rap,’ ” recounts Aguirre.

      Shad, who stepped in to cowrite those sections with Aguirre, had never penned words for theatre before, let alone raps for someone other than himself. But Anywhere but Here’s reverse-refugee story immediately hit home for him.

      “The thing I love about Carmen’s play is it’s about going back to Chile. That’s something I have familiarity with, because my parents retired and went back to Rwanda about 10 years ago, and a lot of Rwandans are doing that,” Shad explains. “There’s that complicated feeling of home when they’re forced to flee wherever they’re from. And then the character, he’s talking in that typical hip-hop voice—he’s a voice who’s not heard.”

      Shad, whose historical knowledge is obvious when he hosts HBO Canada’s Hip-Hop Evolution, decided to dig into a 1970s, early-rap vibe for his rhymes here. And he had fun working with actor Alen Dominguez on rapping style.

      “I had to find out what works for his voice, because I have kind of my own style and tone—just meeting the actor and getting a sense of his style and then trying to adjust it,” Shad notes.

      Michelle Rios

      Relationships cultivated across North America and beyond have helped fuel Aguirre’s wildly collaborative project since the beginning.

      It was through her well-developed circles of Latinx artists that she reached Michelle Rios, a Broadway and film veteran who now stars in Netflix’s Frontera.

      “She’s such a huge trailblazer in Canada,” says Rios, who adds she also had huge admiration for Oregon Shakespeare Festival regular Juliette Carrillo. “The director being a woman, the dramaturge being a woman, the playwright being a woman—just having that energy in the room helped.”

      Rios tackles some of the fantastical, or deceased, characters in a play where, as Aguirre describes it, “the veil between this side and that side is very thin.” Rios transforms into not only revolutionary de Padilla, but an elaborately costumed Virgin del Carmen, the patron saint of Chile, and even one of the play’s symbolic monarch butterflies.

      “I was exploring how big I wanted to play these characters,” explains Rios. “They are characters who are larger than life, pretty much occurring in the imagination of the young girl in the desert.”

      With those magic-realist figures, as well as through comedy and music, Aguirre aims to celebrate traditions of Latin storytelling as well.

      “That’s what’s beautiful but very Latinx about it—our oral-history background has a lot of humour to it, finding light in oppressive situations,” Rios observes. “It’s what we’ve been doing for centuries. And bringing music into it allows the audience to have some breath. Even though the story line is heavy, the audience will have a sense of hope.”

      So, despite all its dark references—from bloody revolutions against colonial forces to exploitive maquiladoras to that ever-expanding border wall—laughter and joy flood Anywhere but Here. It’s a point Aguirre goes out of her way to emphasize, too.

      “Magic and humour,” she ruminates, “that’s how we survive.”

      Electric Company Theatre presents Anywhere but Here at the Vancouver Playhouse from Tuesday (February 4) to February 15 as part of the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival.