I received a t-shirt from Argentina after directing The Mothers by Lavonne Mueller, a play about Las Madres de Plaza de Mayo, and the landscape in which their organization was born . . . the Dirty War in Argentina. On the front of the shirt is a quote, and on the back the white scarves of Las Madres, their symbol, surrounds the empty stool with the general’s hat on the chair. In 1976 a military coup overturned the government and put the military Junta in control. Congress was suspended; judiciary members dismissed and they began to focus on subversives, or those who opposed the new government.
To maintain their good image abroad, plainclothesmen in unmarked cars sought out and abducted those identified as a political risk. The “disappeared” are the sons, the daughters, the husbands, who went to school or to work or to the grocery store, and never returned home. The Mothers say roughly 30,000 people “disappeared”; the government maintains only 9,000 disappeared. They disappeared into over 365 clandestine concentration camps scattered throughoutArgentina. They were tortured and executed.
So let me go back to the symbol of the white scarf. It’s a baby diaper, a shawl, and sometimes when the Mothers are together, people say they are white wings. On the back of each scarf, the Mothers wrote the names of their disappeared. They wore the panuelos, or white wings, to march around the Plaza de Mayo, the courtyard in front of the Presidential palace. And that is how they became known as Las Madres de Plaza de Mayo. They were the only ones brave enough to publicly protest on behalf of their children. The Mothers are housewives; many without a high school education.
I remember receiving a box of slides from the playwright while we were in rehearsal. Each slide was a person who had “disappeared”. I was under strict orders to return the slides when the play was done; they were being lent only. I can’t say now how long it actually took me . . . days, a week, two weeks . . . but I remember agonizing over those slides. I couldn’t narrow down which face, which person should be shown, and which should not. In the end I used the slides at the beginning and the end of the play. In the beginning, slides of the disappeared showed on a dark stage while the audience listened to Sting’s “They Dance Alone”. And at the end of the show, when the women make the decision to wear the panuelos and go to the Plaza de Mayo, the images of the disappeared projected onto them as they marched up and down the theater aisles. Their leader is shot and falls. Another woman ties on a scarf and helps the women to keep marching.
In the book Reading Lolita inTehran, Azar Nafisi says that “in all great works of art, regardless of the grim reality they present, there is an affirmation of life against the transience of that life, an essential defiance.” This is why I fell in love with the story of the Mothers; why I wanted to tell their story. I struggled to promote the play…doing previews at Spanish tapas bars and soliciting flamenco dancers to do pre-show performances in the theater to help draw patrons. But the critics gave us a mixed review – and some nights we had only 10 people in the audience. The actors would come to me and ask, “Rebecca, how many people have to be in the house for us to do the show?” I said 5. If there are 5 we will tell the story.
I was disappointed. I told Lavonne that I had failed. Not enough people came. As it was a new play that had not been fully produced, I shared the feedback from the audience, from the critics, from the actors. She said that the Mothers wanted me to know that they were happy . . . it was not numbers but the fact that it was performed. I received my honorary shirt. And now you know their story as well.