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Home > Arts > REVIEW: Remembering, Forgetting and Battling Impunity in <em>Atacama</em> (Full Circle Theater)

REVIEW: Remembering, Forgetting and Battling Impunity in Atacama (Full Circle Theater)

Pedro R. Bayon and Lara Trujillo star in Full Circle Theater’s production of Atacama, now playing at Park Square Theatre in Saint Paul, MN.

The mission of the Full Circle Theater, the program reminds us, is “to produce heartfelt, groundbreaking theater that artfully addresses issues of diversity and social justice for 21st century audiences”. This mission is well met in FCT’s current production of Augusto Federico Amador’s Atacama, now playing on the Proscenium Stage at Park Square Theatre.

It is not easy to discuss the plot of Atacama without spoilers; deliberately leaving out crucial plot revelations, however, might allow the experience of seeing this show to be as profoundly affecting for readers as it was for me.

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Atacama takes place in Chile in the aftermath of Pinochet’s rule. This setting is key, as is an understanding of some relevant history. In 1970, Salvador Allende’s Socialist “Popular Unity” campaign won the Chilean elections, establishing the first democratically elected socialist government in the Americas. However, there were ongoing tensions with Chile’s Congress, which was controlled by the opposition, and United States President Richard Nixon undermined the country’s economy by blocking multilateral bank loans to Chile and terminating U.S. export credits and loans.  Nixon encouraged and supported a reactionary military coup in 1973. The following year, General Augusto Pinochet firmly established himself in a brutal, right-wing dictatorship that would last for 17 more years.

Pinochet’s coup and the following repressions were extremely bloody. According to the Rettig Report, more than 1,200 people were “disappeared” by the Pinochet Regime. The victims were of all ages, but a large number were young university students; with many bodies never having been found, many believe that the official count of confirmed deaths is missing many hundreds.

The title of this play comes from the vast Atacama Desert in the north of Chile, where many of the disappeared and executed’s bodies were buried. Later, wanting to hide the junta’s crimes, Pinochet had the bodies excavated and dumped into the sea.

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Atacama is the third work in Amador’s Dictator Play trilogy, all dealing with surviving Latin American dictatorships. Ignacia (Lara Trujillo, who also directed) and Diego (Pedro R. Bayon) are both middle-aged parents of victims of Pinochet’s henchmen. Ignacia lost her son and Diego his daughter. Both actors give wonderful, honest, and precise performances in this play blending psychology, philosophy, and magical realism with history.

The script emphasizes the lived experiences of the Women of Calama. Ignacia is one of them: women who spent three decades laboring in the dry heat of the driest nonpolar desert in the world, sifting through the sand and searching with their hands for scattered skeletal remains of their “disappeared” family members, dropped or missed in the hasty coverup. When they find fragments, they take them to Santiago to a DNA lab, wondering if they might have belonged to missing siblings, children, or spouses.

A promotional image for Atacama. Left: Pedro R. Bayon; right: Lara Trujillo.

At the start of the play, Diego is a newcomer to this search, armed with a big shovel that he thrusts into the sand.  Ignacia warns him that he has to be far more delicate: to gently shift though the sand by hand, to locate splintered bones. Diego is dismissive of the whole operation: he is there to fulfill a promise to his deceased wife that he would continue to search for their daughter’s bones, despite his own misgivings. Ignacia is a veteran of the search and its daily grind; she will not be at peace until she find the all the pieces of her missing son. Both are tormented, but their responses diverge.

Pinochet’s coup and its aftermath have, of course, been depicted elsewhere.  The best-know examples include Ariel Dorfman’s brilliant play (and later excellent movie) Death and the Maiden, which powerfully explores the unending psychological trauma of the victims, as a torture survivor recognizes and confronts her former interrogator.  Another well-known work is Constantin Costa-Gavras’s masterful film Missing, which is based on the tragic abduction and murder of the journalist and filmmaker Charles Horman in the days following Pinochet’s Coup, and his father’s and his spouse’s search to discover what happened to him.

Missing hauntingly conveys the chaotic and surreal sensation of the coup, as experienced by many of its witnesses. (In a startling and widely cited image, a terrified woman (Sissy Spacek as Horman’s wife) crouches behind a gate as gunshots erupt and a white horse gallops by, followed by a military truck with armed military thugs hanging from its side. Ignacia’s recollections in Atacama convey a similar sense of unimaginable shock. Testimony of survivors the coup and of similar historical events express the same sense of being utterly stunned by the sudden jump from the relatively normal to explosive violence. Most of us, living ordinary lives, perceive ourselves as somehow shielded and protected from such catastrophes – right up to the moment of collapse.

Another common psychological effect among the surviving families that Amador captures are remorse and self-recrimination.  Ignacia blames herself for having raised a son as a Communist, who was then murdered for those beliefs. Yet, when Diego expresses guilt for his own (very different) influence on his murdered daughter, Ignacia observes that blaming oneself is simply what it means to be a parent.

Atacama also wrestles with the ways in which erasure, forgetfulness, distraction, or simply complacency can contribute to or even increase the injustice done. The indifference of others can retraumatize those who have suffered.

The ALMA Observatory’s telescope array at night. Photo by Babak Tafreshi; used under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license.

At one point, Diego tries to offer consolation from the stars. A younger Ignacia loved to study the night sky, and the great ALMA Observatory is visible from where they dig. Perhaps seeing the faint echoes of the Big Bang could make the suffering of mere mortals more bearable, Diego suggests, but Ignacia will have none of it. Human cruelty is real and substantial; while stars may seem numberless, like grains of sand in the desert, but extreme suffering cannot be healed or consoled by notions of things infinite.

Amador’s play asks some of the same questions as Dorfman’s play:

  • Is any form of justice  for the victims of torture and mass execution or for their surviving families even conceivable? Or, is a conceiving of that justice a further injustice – an insult – to the victims?
  • Is justice delayed still justice?
  • What, if anything, might constitute sufficient atonement for crimes against humanity?
  • What sort of reckoning should there be, and what kind of reconciliation?

Another consistent theme is that any conceivable reconciliation must be preceded by truth: whole and complete.

Mina Kinukawa’s appropriately sparse set – just empty desert and stars – gives a strong sense of Atacama as a place of barrenness and trauma. Here, memory and willful forgetfulness struggle with one another. Ultimately, it morphs into a place of timelessness.

Playwright Augusto Federico Amador.

To avoid spoilers, this review omits discussion of many of the play’s potent dramatic plot twists, and its well-devised use of magical realism. Suffice to say that it is a moving and exceptionally written drama.  While the work does gesture towards hope near its ending, Atacama remains essentially sad, and a timely warning, as seen in the playwright’s poignant program note:

I have to confess that while completing Atacama, I never in my wildest imagination have thought that my country would itself become a victim of an attempted coup which took place on January 6, 2020. Yet most of my fellow Americans have responded to the rise of fascism with a shrug. Meanwhile, we watch in real time as the Ukrainian people have become the courageous new defenders of democracy. Like the Chileans before them, who fought and died for freedom against the Pinochet dictatorship, we Americans are reminded once again how we have become mere spectators in the fight for democracy.

Perhaps the act of attending this play and dwelling with others in the darkness, and witnessing these portrayals of this terrible chapter of history, can itself be a small step in the direction of justice, and towards reconciliation.

Atacama runs through May 1 at Park Square Theatre in Saint Paul, MN.








Kit Bix