The Seventies, Revisited: 'The Madres' and 'Vietgone'
By Kerry Reid
Photo Credit: "The Madres," photo courtesy of Teatro Vista and reprinted with permission by Argentinean Photojournalist Daniel Garcia.
Depictions of the 1970s in American pop culture often fall into portrayals of apolitical indulgence – from the upper-class “swinging” of The Ice Storm to the high school stoners in Dazed and Confused. But two plays running the Chicago area in the next few months offer portraits of key historical events in that decade from perspectives we seldom see.
In Stephanie Alison Walker’s The Madres (through May 27 with Teatro Vista at Victory Gardens), set in 1979 during Argentina’s “dirty war,” we meet the “mothers of the disappeared” – women who held vigils daily in Buenos Aires to protest the brutal genocide of the ruling military junta, which claimed the lives of around 30,000 people. Many of those who “disappeared” were young people working against the repressive regime.
Walker’s stepmother is Argentinian, though she notes that “The story ideas didn’t come from my stepmom.” Her father also ran a business in Argentina years after the “dirty war” (which lasted roughly from the mid- 1970s until 1983), and Walker lived there for a time after college. But, says Walker “We didn’t talk about [the war] in my family and I didn’t really learn about it in school.” Instead, she first met “the madres” when she accompanied a friend in Buenos Aires who was working on a documentary about them to the Plaza de Mayo, where the women silently held photos of their missing loved ones.
“I started my own research and that was in 1998,” says Walker. “It had been on my mind for a really long time before I even attempted to write anything about it. In retrospect, it wasn’t until I became a mother myself that I found a way into telling the story.”
In the play (starring Latinx actor Ivonne Coll, most recently seen on the CW’s Jane the Virgin), a grandmother and mother search for their granddaughter/daughter, who has disappeared while pregnant. Teatro Vista artistic director Ricardo Gutierrez, who directs The Madres, notes that pregnant women captured by the junta were kept alive until after they gave birth. “The babies disappeared and were given to military families, who raised the child as their own and changed their identities.”
The influence of the “madres” was profound, says Gutierrez. “The junta had no idea how to respond to nonviolent protest from women.” Walker says the story is bigger than the time and place in which it’s set. “If these stories aren’t told, we run the risk of repeating it. People in Argentina thought it couldn’t happen there.”
In Qui Nguyen’s celebrated Vietgone, set in 1975, the playwright uses the story of how his parents – both refugees from the Vietnam War – met in a camp in Arkansas and fell in love, while still wrestling with the loss of family and of their country. Nguyen’s style incorporates a mash-up of comic book iconography, hip-hop and high-action fight and dance sequences, providing an exhilarating challenge for director Lavina Jadhwani. It kicks off the new season at Glencoe’s Writers Theatre, August 15-September 23.
Lavina Jadwani. Photo courtesy of Writers Theatre.
Jadhwani first encountered Vietgone in 2016, when she was a directing fellow at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival on Lisa Loomer’s abortion play, Roe. Nguyen’s play was also in rehearsal and she sat in while the playwright did the fight choreography for the production. “This idea of having an Asian-American acting company and a team led by Asian-American designers and technicians and artists was really exciting,” she notes.
Jadhwani also found some parallels in Nguyen’s story with her own family. “My parents are immigrants, not refugees. But their stories are similar,” she says. “They went to the same high school in Mumbai, but met and fell in love in Chicago, so I responded to this notion of parents who shared similar cultures but fell in love abroad.”
Nguyen’s play is also one of the few stories about the Vietnam War and its aftermath that centers Vietnamese characters. “When we see these stories, we tend to focus a lot on what it was like to leave and the circumstances around the evacuation (of Saigon),” notes Jadhwani. “This is a story that is very much about these characters wanting to rebuild the idea of home.” She adds “It’s fundamentally a first-generation story told through a second-generation lens. Audiences have really responded to this in so many different communities. We think we know this story, but we don’t know it from this point of view.”