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La Cautiva written by Luis Alberto León and directed by Chela de Ferrari

La Cautiva. Author: Luis Alberto León. Director and Producer: Chela de Ferrari. El Teatro La Plaza, Larcomar, Lima, November 2014.

The theater La Plaza is an unlikely place to stage a play on the conflict that claimed the lives of some 69,000 Peruvians, mostly rural and of indigenous descent. Situated in the shiny, modern, luxury sea-view shopping center Larcomar, the theater's location does not evoke the violence of the past, but rather Peru's present economic boom. Yet, it is where such a play should take place, for this is the public that ought to be reminded of this past. When the head of the Peruvian Truth and Reconciliation Commission (CVR), Dr. Salomón Lerner, asked how so many people could die and disappear without "integrated society"—that is, members of the urban middle and upper classes—knowing, he pointed to a double scandal: the first scandal was the large-scale assassination, disappearance, and torture; and the second, the indolence, ineptitude, and indifference among those who could have prevented this humanitarian catastrophe from happening.

La Cautiva takes place in one room: a morgue in the city of Huanta in the highlands of Peru in the mid-1980s, after the military had been installed to address the threat of Shining Path. The main story is that of a pact struck between an assistant named Mauro, who is left alone by his supervising doctor, and María Josefa, a dead girl whose body he is to clean. Even though she is dead, Mauro listens to the girl's story, the story of what happened to her and her family. The mingling of the fantasy of imagined happy scenes from her truncated life with snippets of the horror of what had happened is stopped when the local army base commander—the one who had killed the girl—barges into the morgue. Mauro whispers to María Josefa that the man is a mythical figure, here to bless her on her quinceañero. But no, he is here to rape her, soon to be followed by his subordinates. As the general lies on top of the girl's body and shudders from passion, Mauro kills him with a knife, then kills himself soon after. Now dead, he can join María Josefa, who agrees to take him with her to the New Huanta, a beautiful place of bright, pure light.

La Cautiva is among several plays that take up the theme of Peru's internal war. Yuyachkani is the theatre troupe best known for addressing the conflict and socio-political themes, in general. One can see Yuyachkani's influence in La Cautiva, such as in a choreographed sequence by Ana Correa. Unlike the plays of Yuyachkani, however, La Cautiva sticks more closely to stereotypes of different historical personages: the doctor who represents "Lima de espaldas" ("Lima with its back turned away"); the senderista (represented both by Maria Josefa's portrayal of her fanatical father espousing in an authoritarian way their fight for a more just society, and in the dance of a resurrected young senderista); the army commander's drunkenness, brutality, and vulgarity; and María Josefa—resident of the pueblo caught between two fires—and her innocence as the victim, one upon which all Peruvians can agree.

Mauro is perhaps the least clichéd character, as there seems to be little historical precedent from which to draw, yet it is his role that brings this past into the present. Mauro's initial inaction, his lack of courage, and his preference to be in the company of the non-speaking dead are shattered when he agrees to imagine with María Josefa. He finds courage—so much so that he defends her dead body and takes his own life, and in doing so recognizes himself as "guilty" (for he killed the army commander). As Luis Alberto León, the playwright, said in an after-play forum, "Mauro is what Peru should have been, but was not." Yet, this resolution is unsettling, for it suggests that the way out of the quagmire of the violence was possible only through further acts of violence. Furthermore, Mauro's death poses a conundrum in the script: if he dies, who will tell us of María Josefa's tale? Who will testify on her behalf? For León, this obligation now lies with the audience. In this way the audience also becomes a witness and fulfills a societal debt indicated by the CVR: that so many died in the internal conflict, yet Lima did not know, for lack of witnesses and of tangible evidence of their existence, let alone their deaths. These victims become Peruvian citizens in the act of the audience's recognition of their once having been alive.

But, how to reach this audience, the limeño audience of the comfortable classes ("integrated society")? Could this play reach them in a way that the CVR did not? Signs with Maria Josefa's sad face crowned in white advertised the play on the corners of Lima's posh neighborhoods. Literary and art scene luminaries promoted the play in flashy announcements posted on the Internet, in newspapers, magazines, and TV programs, and the play was sponsored in part by Starbucks. Indeed, this is the public—affluent limeños—who attended La Cautiva (tickets cost around S/60 or approx. $20 USD). During the play, the audience laughed at times, perhaps a nervous response to the drama unfolding. A couple sitting in front of us used the darkness to exchange small kisses, and only some in attendance stood up in ovation of this work, though critics have called it the best Peruvian play in 2014. The distance between the audience and the historical protagonists, as well as between the location of the performance and the place where violence occurred is reinforced by the actors' use of castellano quechuizado, a Spanish filled with Quechua words and rhythm. Each Thursday after the play, a public forum was held where audience members could ask questions of the director, author, actors, and research assistants. And while it was encouraging to hear a public dialogue over this past—at least from the third of the audience who chose to remain—it also shows the limits of engagement. Along with questions like, "What was I doing during the conflict?" were comments such as, "Gracias por abrirme los ojos" ("Thank you for opening my eyes"), both echoing sentiments that were expressed in page after page of the comment books of the CVR's photography exhibit Yuyanapaq, the visual accompaniment to their Final Report, ten years prior.

Once eyes are open, is one's vision changed? How does one bring this knowledge into the present in a way that does not reify or entrench the positions of the past? As Chela De Ferrari, the producer, discussed with the playwright, "If we are unable to review this past and try to understand what happened...and to recognize ourselves as a society, the inequality will continue living, and the horror will continue being born." Their concern seems prescient. For while the play is oddly frozen in a far-away past—Ayacucho in the 1980s—the legacies are still very much present. In the months following the play, the National Police division on terrorism and the Interior Ministry investigated La Cautiva for its portrayal of the armed forces as a potential "apology of terrorism," a crime that carries a possible prison sentence of up to twelve years. After public outcry from "integrated society" to protect artistic freedom, the case against La Cautiva was dropped. Yet, the risk remains: by opening one's eyes and recognizing the past, one may be held captive by its aftermath.

Cynthia E. Milton presently works on historical and artistic representations in the aftermath of conflict, in particular contemporary Peru ( She is the editor of Art from a Fractured Past: Memory and Truth-Telling in Post-Shining Path Peru (Durham: Duke Univ. Press, 2014), a co-editor of Curating Difficult Knowledge: Violent Pasts in Public Places (London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2011) and The Art of Truth-Telling about Authoritarian Rule (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2005). Major honors include the Bolton-Johnson Prize for The Many Meanings of Poverty: Colonialism, Social Compacts, and Assistance in Eighteenth-Century Ecuador (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2007) and the Alexander Von Humboldt Experienced Researcher Fellowship. She holds a Canada Research Chair in Latin American History at the Université de Montréal, and was recently nominated to The College of New Scholars, Artists and Scientists of the Royal Society of Canada.

María Eugenia Ulfe, Ph.D., is an anthropologist from the Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú (1994), Master in the Arts of the Americas, Africa, and Oceania, University of East Anglia (Sainsbury Research Centre), Norwich, England (1995) and PhD in Human Sciences (Anthropology), George Washington University, Washington DC, USA (2005). Currently she is a professor in Social Anthropology and director of the Master program in Anthropology and the Master program in Visual Anthropology at the Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú. Among her recent publications, there is Cajones de la Memoria: la historia reciente del Perú de las manos de retablistas andinos (Lima: Colección Estudios Andinos. Lima: Fondo Editorial de la Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú, 2011) and ¿Y después de la violencia que queda? Víctimas, ciudadanos y reparaciones en el contexto post-CVR en el Perú (CLACSO, Buenos Aires, 2013).

Karen Bernedo has an M.A in Visual Anthropology and is a curator, artist, documentary and art video filmmaker. Partner and co-founder of the Museo Itinerante Arte por la Memoria and researcher and director of the Virtual Museum of Arts and Political Violence of Perú. She is currently is shooting a documentary film about representations of trauma at carnivals in post-conflict Peruvian society. The collective project of Museo Itinerante Arte por la Memoria won National Prize of Human Rights 2012 and prestigious Prince Claus award 2014 (Netherlands).