Santiago's Ride from Peru to Los Angeles

Santiago
Photo by Jano Siles.

Santiago was created by theater collective Grupo Cultural Yuyachkani in 2001, just as nearly twenty years of internal warfare between terrorist organizations (the Shining Path and the MRTA) and the Peruvian military came to an end. Santiago is part of a series of plays created by Yuyachkani (Antigona, Rosa Cuchillo, Adiós Ayacucho, and Sin Título) that address Peruvian political history and challenge, through plot and visual aesthetics, the conditions that contributed to the violence.

Santiago takes place in an anonymous village in the Andes, emptied of all but three of its inhabitants: Bernadina (Ana Correa), Armando (Augusto Casafranca), and Rufino (Amiel Cayo); all others have fled due to the violence. The characters gather together in the town church; Bernadina and Armando, although motivated for very different reasons, are united in their desire to resurrect the tradition of parading a likeness of the Apostle Santiago through the town, and Rufino remains to guard the church. But there is a problem: the Santiago likeness is locked up, and neither Bernadina nor Armando has the key. Thus the main conflict of the play arises as Bernadina and Armando attempt to retrieve the key from Rufino, and he attempts to sabotage their efforts, in the process revealing what it is that he actually protects in the church. The most compelling action takes place between Armando and Rufino as they struggle for power; Armando represents the politics of capitalism, modernization, conquest- and therefore Santiago- while Rufino represents the traditions of the indigenous population.

Santiago
Photo by Jano Siles.

From 27 to 30 April 2006, Yuyachkani presented Santiago at the REDCAT Theater in Los Angeles. This production brought together an audience of Peruvians who now reside in the United States, along with Caucasian Americans, Mexican-Americans, and multiple other demographics. How did such a distinctly Peruvian production translate to such a diverse audience? How did it represent the cultural and political history of its Peruvian origins while simultaneously responding and reaching out to its new theatrical and cultural setting in Los Angeles?

Santiago's ability to travel easily, both literally and figuratively, comes in part from its minimal set that, although not an exact replica of the inside of a church, provides enough information to the audience so the play's setting is clear. A few benches in a row, prayer candles, and a large cross-all signify the location to be a church. In addition to the practicality of a minimal set, its simplicity also allows the audience to impose their own cultural and social imaginings upon the implied location of the piece. The set was erected within REDCAT's space, a relatively intimate blackbox theater, in a way that left the walls of the theater visible. This clearly delineated the environment constructed by the play, while also reminding the audience that this production would occupy the theater only temporarily. Santiago did not fully exist in Los Angeles, nor did it remain permanently rooted in Peru; it existed somewhere between the two nations, and the REDCAT audience was invited into this in-between space.

To supplement the abstract set, Yuyachkani's productions often include a number of objects and artifacts that help create ambience, the most impressive of which in Santiago is a nearly life-size papier-mâché horse. The most interesting moments in the performance occur when, using their physicality and these objects, the actors create still-life images which reference familiar iconographic imagery. The conflict between the characters comes to its climax when the horse is taken out and Rufino, captured by Bernadina and Armando, is placed under the horse to be trampled. This image replicates the many paintings of the Apostle Santiago that portray his title as "Santiago the Moor-Slayer," or "Santiago the Indian-Slayer." Bernadina and Armando's objective is clear: in order for them to parade Santiago at his full glory, the Indian must be crushed beneath him.

Santiago
Photo by Jano Siles.

When Santiago was performed in Los Angeles, the city was in the midst of highly political events, such as the 1 May demonstration entitled "Day Without a Mexican," in response to proposed legislation that would decrease the rights of illegal immigrants. The strong imagery of Santiago and conquest mirrored the sociopolitical upheaval regarding immigration and contributed to the dialogue stirred by the demonstrations and political discussions taking place at the time. Additionally, the effect of war on the characters in the play (most poignantly expressed by Bernadina when she asks, "The war is over, but when does peace begin?") resonated with an audience plagued by growing concern and disagreement over the war in Iraq. In this way, the powerful imagery translated to most if not all of the REDCAT audience.

Santiago delicately balances the universal and the specific, allowing access to an audience both familiar and unfamiliar with its original Peruvian context. Its themes of conquest, indigeneity, and the devastation of war translate to multiple communities in multiple nations. At the REDCAT Theater, just as in Peru, Yuyachkani attracted a diverse audience and offered a specific representation of Peruvian history, while remaining open to interpretation such that the audience could translate the piece according to their own cultural and political background. Santiago belonged both to Peru and to Los Angeles, to all of its audiences, and, in this way, Yuyachkani accomplished what it does best: education and unification through performance.


Katherine J. Nigh is a graduate of Hunter College and received a Master of Arts from NYU's Department of Performance Studies in 2005. She has had the great pleasure of facilitating the archives of Grupo Cultural Yuyachkani and more recently El Teatro Campesino as part of HIDVL, the Hemispheric Institute's digital video project. In 2006 Ms. Nigh was a runner-up for the International Federation of Theater Research's New Scholars Prize.

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