The Illuminated City of Memory: Double Edge Theatre in Jamaica Plain
Fiesta en la Calle
Alejo Carpentier, the Cuban novelist and musicologist perhaps most famous for his theory of the “marvelous real” in Latin American literature, depicts an “incredible city in ruins” in the hinterlands of an unnamed South American country in his novel Los Pasos Perdidos (The Lost Steps):
Trees scaled the walls, burying their claws in the cracks in the mortar, and a burned church still displayed various buttresses, archivolts, and a monumental arch on the point of collapse, on its tympanum still to be discerned, in dim relief, the figures of a celestial concert, with angels playing the bassoon, the theorbo, the organ, and the maracas. (1956:116)
The unnamed narrator is, like Carpentier, a musicologist, and has embarked on a journey upriver in search of rare indigenous instruments and evidence for his theory on the origin of music. He is so struck by the carvings of angels playing maracas alongside the expected instruments of the European baroque, that he rushes back toward his boat for a pencil and paper, only to be intercepted by a grotesque procession. “Drums and shrill flutes” accompany a parade of “devils,” their faces covered in black, following the lead of a master of ceremonies, “who could have played the role of Beelzebub in a Passion Play” (116). They are re-enacting in allegory the arrival in their village of a statue of St. James and the subsequent dispersal of the “devils,” i.e., the indigenous spirits driven out by missionaries in their Christianizing project. Of course, the “devils” can never be erased entirely, and here in the village they transform into clowns, taunting neighbors and keeping up the atmosphere of carnivalesque misrule. Reflecting on these events later, the narrator wonders “whether perhaps the role of these lands [i.e. the “New World”] in the history of man might not be to make possible for the first time certain symbioses of cultures” (119-120).
Adam Bright (suspended above the crowd) and Hannah Jarrell in Double Edge Theatre's Latin American Spectacle at Blessed Sacrament Church in Jamaica Plain, MassachusettsPhoto credit: Mark Saperstein
Standing underneath the high arched nave of Blessed Sacrament Church in Jamaica Plain, Boston, immersed in the sounds and sights of Double Edge Theatre’s “Latin American Spectacle,” I found myself thinking of Carpenter’s ruined church in the wilderness. Shuttered in 2004, in the aftermath of court settlements stemming from the Boston Archdiocese’s cover-up of sexual abuse by priests, Blessed Sacrament no longer holds religious services, though its grand, columned façade, peeling frescoes, and marble floors, attest to its former splendor and prestige. The Hyde Square Task Force took control of the building in 2013. The church and other facilities on its property are a kind of headquarters for the organization’s efforts to reclaim the neighborhoods of Jamaica Plain for the use and enrichment of its current inhabitants, in the face of rising property values and increasing development of condos and luxury housing. Jamaica Plain, which has been part of the City of Boston since 1873, has a reputation as one of the few urban areas in Greater Boston to remain generally affordable and attractive to families, students, and young professionals, though that, too, appears to be changing.
The Latin American Spectacle was produced by Double Edge Theatre, Hyde Square Task Force and the Charlestown Working Theater, and was created by members of the Double Edge Ensemble, many of whom performed in the piece alongside local young people. The spectacle, which took place on the evenings of May 28-29 2016, draws on material from Double Edge’s 2015 piece Once a Blue Moon (Cada Luna Azul), an indoor/outdoor “traveling spectacle” directed by Artistic Director Stacy Klein, originally produced at Double Edge’s home base, the Farm, in Ashfield, Massachusetts.1 In its full form, Once a Blue Moon tells an elliptical tale of nostalgia and loss, revolving around the memories of an unnamed narrator played by Carlos Uriona. As he speaks of his home village called Agua Santa, the different locales of the Farm—groves of trees, riverbanks, the sensuous darkness of a transformed barn—leap into life, peopled by characters, some of them magical, who confront the catastrophe of a man-made flood. For the Jamaica Plain spectacle, the plot was stripped down, with most dialogue coming from Uriona and a handful of other actors. The loss of characters and secondary plot lines was just as well lost, since the booming echoes in Blessed Sacrament church were not conducive to understanding spoken dialogue. Instead, what carried over from the original production was the sense of spectacle, visual and auditory, and above all the music, a tapestry of songs and instrumental pieces that provided the connective tissue for the literal and figurative journey. The music in Once a Blue Moon and the Latin American Spectacle was arranged and directed by Micaela Farías Gómez and Manuel Uriona of the group Santadiabla, and John Peitso of the Charlestown Working Theater.2
Much of the music retained the dramaturgical associations from Once a Blue Moon. As Uriona finished his opening monologue, for example, a distant drumbeat grew louder as, from around the corner, a procession of stilt walkers, dancers, and singers, trailed by a batería of drums, poured into the courtyard, singing and playing “Se Va La Murga (Retirada)” by the Uruguayan songwriter Jaime Roos. Arrayed on the church’s front steps, the dancers responded to sudden drum cadences and whistle blasts with the athletic leaps and twists characteristic of murga Porteña, in which the murgueros “try to suspend themselves in the air” (Martín 1997:16).
Carlos Uriona (foreground) and companyPhoto credit: Maria Baranova
This moment was much the same as in the Farm spectacle, though augmented here by the presence of two dozen participants from the Hyde Square Task Force. Other songs, however, became unmoored from their original settings: the scene at “La Señora’s,” relatively brief in the original, becomes in Jamaica Plain the setting for a kind of music and dance revue featuring, among other acts, Uriona singing Carlos Gardel’s famous tango “Volver,” a quartet of men singing the Venezuelan joropo “El Canto del Agua,” and an expanded version of “Amarra Malaya,” based on a song by Ruben Rada, transformed into a Rioplatense candombe and further layered with verses of rap, one in Spanish by guest artist Micaela Farías Gómez and one in English by youth performer Maurice Bouchard.
Micaela Farías Gómez and Maurice BouchardPhoto credit: Maria Baranova
The performance would have been remarkable even if it had stayed within the confines of Blessed Sacrament Church, where the audience’s perspective shifted continuously from one corner of the sanctuary to another, and sometimes above their heads, as the Engineer (Adam Bright) soared on a zipline from one end of the church to the other, even grabbing a hat from the head of an audience member.
Adam Bright (The Engineer) above the crowdPhoto credit: Mark Saperstein
Yet, in keeping with the tradition of murga and carnaval, the performance took to the street. The sonic vehicle for the transition was “El Pescador,” a cumbia written by Colombian composer José Barros. The choice of genre was apt, as cumbia has proven itself to be remarkably adept at migrations across boundaries of nation, class, and ethnicity (Fernández L’Hoeste and Vila 2013). As the waters of the flood, symbolized by long banners of translucent blue fabric lofted over the heads of the audience, overtook the village of Agua Santa, the steady, walking-speed rhythms of the cumbia pressed forward from the back of the hall, guiding the audience through the front doors. Out on the street, a vanguard of tall wire puppets led the way down Centre Street, closed to traffic by the police. The parade made its way down four city blocks to Mozart Park, taking about ten minutes to move a crowd of well over a hundred. Although the versions of “El Pescador” being played at the front and back ends of the procession drifted in and out of sync, pockets of performers were strategically deployed throughout the crowd to maintain a forward momentum.
Company leading the parade down Centre StreetPhoto credit: Maria Baranova
Near the middle was a corps of dancers led by Milena Dabova—young women in white skirts and men nattily dressed in short-sleeve button-downs and fedoras, bringing to mind, with their lithe footwork and contained exuberance, the famed “steppers” of New Orleans social clubs who march ahead of the second line. Residents and shopkeepers stood on the sidewalk as we passed, going about their business or pausing to discuss what they saw in front of them. Cell phone cameras captured it all, some even in the hands of the police officers stationed along the route to stop traffic.
Milena Dabova with youth participants from Hyde Square Task ForcePhoto credit: Mark Saperstein
Memory and Mobility
The functions of memory become legible at several levels of the Latin American Spectacle. Within the spoken text of the performance, written by Matthew Glassman, memory is a structural element: everything we see—and, presumably, hear—is presented as the narrator’s reminiscence. At the same time, Uriona’s character addresses the subject directly, saying in his final monologue: “Agua Santa [the narrator’s home village] is a place that exists only in my memory now. And I return there as a form of protest.” The imperative to remember, to protest the circumstances of the present through recourse to the past, coexists with the experience of nostalgia, the pleasurable pain at homecoming so memorably expressed in Lepera and Gardel’s “Volver,” whose words echoed through the church earlier in the night:
Volver … / con la frente marchita, / las nieves del tiempo / platearon mi sien.
Sentir … / que es un soplo la vida, / que veinte años no es nada, /que febril la mirada
errante en la sombras / te busca y te nombra.
Vivir … con el alma aferrada / a un dulce recuerdo, / que lloro otra vez.
To return … / with withered forehead, / the snows of time / have whitened my temples.
To feel... / that life is a puff of wind, / that twenty years is nothing, / that the feverish look,
wandering in the shadow, / looks for you and names you.
To live... / with the soul clutched / to a sweet memory / that I cry once again.
Yet, memory is not limited to thematics of script or scenario. Rather, it becomes embodied in the performance’s winding paths through the streets of Jamaica Plain, where centuries of cultural movement and dynamic shifts of power have left traces practically on every street corner. The choice to perform a Latin American spectacle in Jamaica Plain may seem obvious—this part of Boston boasts one of the largest concentration of Spanish-speaking residents, with several periods of immigration particularly from Cuba and elsewhere in the Caribbean. The link between this performance and its urban environment, however, goes deeper than commonalities of language or contemporary immigration politics.
In Cities of the Dead, theatre historian Joseph Roach posits a “circum-Atlantic” performance tradition, a “vast behavioral vortex” which links areas of the “Old” and “New” Worlds, fused together via the trans-Atlantic trade in African slaves, raw materials, and manufactured goods. He writes, "[T]he mutually interdependent performances of circum-Atlantic memory remain visible, audible, and kinesthetically palpable to those who walk in the cities along its historic rim" (1996:30). Although falling short of London’s economic dominance in the circum-Atlantic sphere, and having never fostered an environment of cultural hybridity as robust as New Orleans’s, the city of Boston nonetheless is an important historical locus of the performance world Roach describes. So, too, the South American musical genres represented in the spectacle bear the marks of the collision among European, Native American, and African traditions. Again, in Roach’s words, “circum-Atlantic societies, confronted with revolutionary circumstances for which few precedents existed, have invented themselves by performing their pasts in the presence of others” (1996:5).
Sometimes the pasts being performed are histories of forgetting and loss as much as remembering and celebration. In the case of the Blessed Sacrament church, the legacy of the Catholic Church, for good or ill, was legible in the neglected paintings and dark recesses of the desanctified space. Of course, many of the families of Caribbean origin that now live near the church are also Catholic, yet their religious expression has traditionally been set apart from the dominant Irish and Italian manifestations of Catholicism. The process of reinscribing the neighborhood as Boston’s “Latin Quarter”—a focus of Hyde Square Task Force’s media strategy—simultaneously attempts to overturn a stereotypical characterization of Boston as homogeneously English-speaking and Euro-centric and to acknowledge the long-term presence, indeed the deep-rooted nature, of Latino communities in Boston. This reinscription further opposes the encroachment of developers, spurred by an influx of wealthy young professionals and ballooning real estate prices throughout Boston. In this, too, we are dealing with a process whose roots go back in time. A 1981 bilingual English-Spanish book of first-person testimonies and candid photographs of Jamaica Plain residents testifies to the 30-year continuity of these concerns:
Now the shortage of decent, affordable housing is changing Jamaica Plain’s tradition as a community where working class people and families can live. Now there are others who have an interest in Jamaica Plain: outside investors, developers, city planners, politicians, and back-to-the-city’ers. (Rogovin 1981)
Company leading parade back to churchPhoto credit: Maria Baranova
Beyond the cultural archaeology of the urban environment, there are other histories, other memories feeding into the spectacle, emanating directly from the lives, from the bodies of the creators. Although the dramaturgy of the piece as a whole is essentially an original story, many of the scenes are inspired by works of literature, particularly fiction by writers like Alejandro Jodorowsky, Gabriel García Márquez, Isabel Allende, and Jorge Luís Borges. The music, on the other hand, although predominantly traditional and pre-existing, serves as a vehicle of autobiography, in entwined and unexpected ways.
A brief discussion of two songs will demonstrate this. The first, “Yutito,” is a baguala from the northern regions of Argentina. The song has been in guest artist Micaela Farías Gómez’s family for four generations, beginning with her great-grandmother, who heard it sung by a native speaker of Kichwa. Transmitted orally in the Farías Gómez family, which included members of the popular group Los Huanca Hua, the song calls back to the folklore revival of the 1960s and the leftist Nueva Canción movement, inspired by music researchers like Leda Valladares.3
Carlos Uriona in the interior of Blessed Sacrament ChurchPhoto credit: Maria Baranova
Milena Dabova (Luna) while the song “Yutito” echoes through the churchPhoto credit: Maria Baranova
The other song, “Se Va la Murga,” bookends the performance, sung and danced first on the steps of the church and later behind a chainlink fence at Mozart Park. Lead actor Carlos Uriona first heard the song during an unauthorized tour to Uruguay with his puppet theatre group Diablomundo in 1980. At the time, the military dictatorship in Argentina had banned public celebrations of Carnaval or Mardi Gras, and the murga of Uruguay (with its choral singing and satirical lyrics) was a revelation to Uriona. As Gustavo Remedi writes of this period, “The murga, milonga, candombe, regional rock, and other local music forms became symbolically identified with democratic, national, and popular norms, the signifiers of Uruguayans’ idiosyncrasy and lifestyle. This association was understood as an act and a symbol of cultural resistance and reaffirmation” (2004:82). “Se va la murga” is the chorus of Jaime Roos’s song “Retirada,” a meditation on exile and nostalgia recorded in Paris and circulated in Roos’s home country via bootleg audiotape. While in Montevideo, on this illegal tour, Uriona received a phone call telling him that his son Manuel had been born, several weeks early, in Buenos Aires. Thirty-six years later, joined by that son, who is now a prominent percussionist in Argentina, Carlos Uriona and his family of collaborators transformed the streets of Jamaica Plain into another stage on the song’s journey.
After the first night’s performance, as I stood in Blessed Sacrament Church with director Stacy Klein and some friends, one of Klein’s daughters remarked that this felt like a return for Double Edge, performing in churches in Boston (the theatre was founded in 1982 and for many years used St. Luke’s and St. Margaret’s Church in Allston as a performance space). Klein took it a step further, inspired by the architecture to recall the time Double Edge performed at the ruins of the old synagogue in Drohobycz, today part of Ukraine. The theatre is clearly drawn to locations that allow the voices of the past to resonate through filters of catastrophic loss and societal transformation. By temporarily intervening in the indoor and outdoor practices of a contested region of Boston, Double Edge has found a way to make the Charles River and the Río de la Plata seem like two bends of the same stream, even if, in the words of Heraclitus paraphrased by Uriona in the play, you can never step in the same river twice.
Hannah Jarrell and companyPhoto credit: Maria Baranova
- 1. As a former member of the company, I consulted on the early stages of work for Once a Blue Moon, though I was not directly involved in the performance nor with the Jamaica Plain project.
- 2. The audio examples that accompany this essay were recorded by the author using Roland CS-10EM binaural microphones and a Roland R-05 digital recorder. Given the immersive nature of the spectacle, these examples register a subjective, localized experience of the performance, best listened to with headphones.
- 3. An in-depth discussion of Valladares is beyond the scope of this piece, though her spirit hovers behind much of the musical research for the Latin American Spectacle. Her description of herself in a 1979 interview with Sing Out!—“I’m not a musicologist, a scientist of folklore. I am a singer who is investigating and not an investigator who is singing” (1979:2)—places her within the heterogeneous tradition of Latin American ethnomusicology’s “undisciplinary history” (Ochoa Gautier 2006:813), and serves as inspiration for interdisciplinary artists like Uriona and Double Edge.