Spanish and Latin American mythology often refer to the idea of duende when describing certain modes of artistic expression. Federico García Lorca, in fact, delivered a famous lecture about it back in 1922. A complicated term to translate or define in English, its loose meaning might be surmised as a performance that is so sublime, transcendent, and fully realized that it appears as if some spiritual force has possessed its host. The more popularized spirits of duende are sometimes depicted as small, grotesque, troll-like figures, haunting and pervasive, for duende can create mischief, be unpredictable, and unearth uncomfortable truths. At the same time, it brings us profound wisdom and beauty. Which brings me to Diana Chery Ramírez’s latest play in translation, Aviones de Papel, or Paper Airplanes, depending on which show you attend—with performances in both Spanish and English during its two-week run this April at Teatro LATEA on Suffolk Street.
There is certainly something haunting and diabolical in Chery Ramírez’s play, the story of Beatriz and Diego, two loners who live in contiguous apartments in an unnamed megalopolis. Both characters deeply desire their own private space, isolating themselves in order to heal from past wounds. And yes, both characters are taken by surprise when, at the play’s opening, they realize that their search for solace has been for naught: the thin walls between the two apartments make solitude virtually impossible. Beatriz harangues Diego, “Go take your craziness someplace else!” while Diego retorts, “I just wanted to ask you a favor. Show some courtesy to your neighbors!” As any New Yorker can attest, the argument doesn’t stop there. Thus, their encounters, or rather their desencuentros, fuel the play’s plot.
Aviones de Papel was first produced in Venezuela in 2006 at the International Theater Festival of Oriente. Conceived in her native city of Bogota, Columbia, the playwright became fascinated by the silhouette of a lone woman in a window, which reminded her of the small moments of solitude sought in New York. From there she began penning her script. Chery Ramírez was active as both an actress and playwright in her native homeland, where the rich literary history of such figures as Garbriel García Márquez inspired a culture that embraced language, metaphor, and art as a vehicle for political expression and change. Since then, Chery Ramírez has made New York City her home, as have approximately 280,000 Latinos like her. During this time, she’s struggled with the lack of opportunities for Latino voices, including her own, in the mainstream theater. In her search to create theater outside of these traditional avenues, she discovered organizations that foster Spanish-speaking and derived work. This exploration has led her to a partnership with the organizations LATEA and the Theatre Arts Continuum, which will make Chery Ramírez’s theatrical vision possible this spring.
LATEA, which stands for the Latin American Experiments and Associates and can also be translated as “the torch,” was established in 1982, and since then its founders Nelson Tamayo, Mateo Gomez, and Nelson Landrieu have been committed to showcasing a wide range of talent to multicultural audiences. Their mission focuses on offering young Latino and Latina artists a platform in which to develop their work when funding is otherwise limited, and to further challenge the persistent negative portrayals of Latinos in the media. LATEA describes itself as a socially responsible artistic environment, where arts are both integral and relevant to the life experiences of its New York audiences. Latinos comprise 27 percent of the population of its Lower East Side home, the second greatest percentage next to Asians. The Lower East Side also includes a critical mass of low-income inhabitants, with more that 23 percent living in poverty, with a household median income of less than $26,000 a year. At a time when a typical Broadway play requires deep pockets, when and where will these communities have the chance to see and hear their voices, experiences, and heritage expressed in the theater?
“Not many people know that there are alternatives to Broadway and Off Broadway that are proposing interesting classical or contemporary work by Hispanic artists,” Chery Ramírez explains. “Critics are not interested in works that are not in English, even if the work offers supertitles, or they don’t seem interested if the work is in English, but is presented by Latino artists.” Chery Ramírez is also disheartened by the lack of physical space that is viable to her fellow artists for rehearsal and productions, emphasizing that more mainstream venues often turn down hosting multicultural productions because they view them as too risky. Theater organizations and spaces such as La Mama and the Brooklyn Academy of Music, however, have created a name for themselves producing work that is varied in content and for supporting overseas productions. Yet Chery Ramírez argues that organizations that stress international collaborations aren’t as common as they should be. Relying on a two-person cast, Aviones de Papel required a smaller space that could properly harbor the intimate exchanges between its characters. “I’m thankful that LATEA and the Theatre Arts Continuum trust our work,” she says, “and I believe that their desire to opening their doors to fellow artists is important. We should work together as a community more often and with more assertiveness, so that people begin to see a Latino theatre movement that is as varied and professional as any other.”
Chery Ramírez’s decision to have back-to-back performances of her play in Spanish and English will also offer audiences an unusual perspective. If explaining the concept of one Spanish word, such as duende, is so challenging as to inspire an entire manifesto from Lorca, then certainly translating words and performances from Spanish to English will and should invoke trepidation. Chery Ramírez and her collaborators feel that producing the play in two languages gives them an opportunity to open the play up to a larger audience and allow viewers to experience events in both languages if they choose.
In addition to her role as playwright, Chery Ramírez assumes the role of Beatriz and acts alongside long-time collaborator Carlos Alberto Valencia. Chery Ramírez, Valencia, and director Aminta de Lara have shared the task of creating an English version of the play that reflects the nuances of its native language while also assuming a style of speech and manner that New Yorkers will be able to identify with. Chery Ramírez describes their translation process as an extension of their stage work. “Carlos and I worked hard trying to make the language of the play in Spanish reappear in English by keeping its daily tone with a hint of awkwardness or poetry, or whatever it is the dramatic language in Spanish offers,” she says. “Some parts were natural and fun to translate. Some others, where the language becomes too specific in Spanish and has certain rhythms and a particular tone, were more challenging to find the right words or images that were closer to the Spanish, but sufficient and exact in English. We deal with it on stage like everything else. We try them and when they sound off, we try others, until something clicks.”
All in all, Aviones de Papel seeks to unite not only its characters, but the two nations and cultures that have now staged it, through examining the pivotal moments of loneliness that pervade our lives, no matter the language we speak or the city we live in.
The play’s emphasis on one’s quest for psychological and physical space speaks to the specific experience of city life and remains timely, especially as the trend of suburbanites swarming back to cities continues to rise. As our spaces threaten to collide, we may put up walls—sometimes with a clear intent to block out “the other”—but these physical and emotional barriers are almost always in jeopardy because the outside world, and perhaps fate itself, insist that we confront it. If the illogical spirits of duende persist on knocking at the door, as Diego does with Beatriz, then it’s not a simple matter of opening or not opening the door. The spirits will enter anyway and wreak havoc. Be it glorious or subversive, a magical chaos will ensue. As Lorca testified, “Duende is there to challenge us to keep our ears open to the ‘dark sounds,’ to keep our touch with the earth and with the ghosts of those who have come before, to never refuse the struggle which is needed to keep the spirits working on the side of truth.”
Aviones de Papel/Paper Airplanes by Diana Chery Ramírez, directed by Aminta de Lara, runs March 31–April 10 at LATEA Theater at the CSV Cultural and Education Center (107 Suffolk Street, Manhattan). For more info, visit www.teatrolatea.com