Raising a Collective Voice:
by Matthew Paul Olmos
Martín Zimmerman and Seven Spots on the Sun
In the past year, our days have been filled with controversial changes in policy, irrational polarization between political parties, and widening evidence of government corruption. As such, many of us are on constant alert and in continual political dialogues both on and offline. There is a frenzy to what is going on in our country and a desperation of ideas of what to do about it. But underlying it all is a very basic question: are we going to be all right?
For many of us, particularly those who would read an article of theater goings-on in New York City, the answer is more or less positive; we will ultimately be O.K. But for so many others, the answer is not so comforting. Our nation is populated with millions upon millions who will undoubtedly have livelihoods torn away from them, or at least sent into chaos. And so, the question of whether “we the people” are going to be all right becomes a serious unknown.
In the works of playwright Martín Zimmerman, we often experience people who are in the center of such a journey. His characters do all they can, or what they believe they must, to get through the hardships of a harshly changing world. In his play Seven Spots on the Sun (which runs through June 4 at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater in collaboration with the Sol Project), we are introduced to a town in an undefined Latin American country in the midst of a civil war which triggers personal stories of loss and injustice, as well as a miracle.
While the play focuses on several interpersonal stories, the town is also a key presence onstage, as described by Zimmerman in his notes preceding the script:
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the Town should not be a homogenous body of dispassionate observers, but rather a dynamic group of distinct individuals who each have a deeply personal need to share this story. To confess, to defend themselves, to enrage you, etc.
Throughout the play, while we become engaged in individual struggles, we are continually reminded of how each character belongs to a community and, in turn, to a country in which war is perhaps more easily digested as a political event, but the hanging threads of everyday and personal atrocities will remain long after the larger conflict has consumed itself.
“One of the things I feel like I’ve learned recently is that community and collective action are essential to making it through,” Zimmerman told me when I questioned him on this topic. “Repressive regimes try to isolate us from each other, try to make us feel like we’re the only ones that feel angry, that feel like things must change. They try to make us feel crazy for feeling these things. Capitalism works in a similar way, by pitting members of a community against each other.”
One of Zimmerman’s earlier plays, White Tie Ball, focuses on Chicanos who do become pitted against each other in how they choose to move forward from their street upbringing into society. At the same time, all the characters, regardless of their place in society, are always tied to the roots of the community in which they were raised.
In the following excerpt from the play, Jimenez is charged with murder and speaks to his prosecuting attorney, who comes from the same neighborhood but is now headed towards becoming the first Latino Attorney General in Arizona:
I don’t give a god damn what the grand jury thought! You know when I pulled that trigger I had no idea who she was. You know when she broke down that door and I saw her badge flashing in the light there was nothing I could do to bend that bullet. But you still want to get me killed. (No answer.) Did exactly what you said you wanted in your speeches. Tried to get out the game. Called your own baby brother for help. But you treat me like this? And you expect me to be grateful? (Beat.) Rather take my chances at trial.
While White Tie Ball revolves around a personal story, it digs into issues such as cultural assimilation and racial politics; Zimmerman also recently closed his play On the Exhale (at Roundabout Theatre Company in New York) which looked at gun violence in America. Zimmerman writes from a place of political and social questioning; at the same time, his plays are filled with a theatricality that comments on how ridiculous and unimaginable our world is becoming.
From Seven Spots on the Sun, the town has begun dancing to the music of an old radio which a local has managed to restore:
While everyone else continues to dance.
An insatiable appetite for the music.
They bathe every part of their body in it.
Until a VOICE crackles in over the radio.
We interrupt your regularly scheduled programming…
Everyone immediately freezes…
…for this news break from the capitol.
…and stares straight ahead, motionless.
The newly-elected gobierno democrático has just passed a landmark piece of legislation pardoning any and all acts of political violence committed during the war. Presidente Osvaldo Perez is hailing the new amnesty, which he promises to sign promptly, as crucial to the maintenance of peace and the continued healing of our country…
THE VOICE CONTINUES ON WITH A BEAUTIFUL RHYTHM AND CAREFULLY CHOREOGRAPHED INFLECTION, BUT WE CAN’T QUITE MAKE OUT ANYTHING IT’S SAYING.
AFTER A FEW MOMENTS, WE REALIZE IT IS COMPLETE AND UTTER GIBBERISH.
BEAUTIFUL, BUT MEANINGLESS GIBBERISH.
There are often heartbreaking stage directions within Zimmerman’s work, from a town that no longer hears justice or truth from its government, to the flickering and burning brightness of a man’s wife as a pineapple turns to sand when he realizes she is no longer there. However, the source of these magical realities within Seven Spots remains steeped in the injustices from the civil war surrounding them.
“Magic seems appropriate for the world of Seven Spots on the Sun because these characters are grappling with loss on an epic scale, loss caused by events far beyond their control,” Zimmerman explained. “So magical elements seem an appropriate way of communicating what it might feel like to have one’s life changed violently and irreparably without warning.” This is something Zimmerman spent time researching, as he took a trip to Argentina to interview family members of people disappeared by the military dictatorship.
Many of the ideas within Seven Spots are rooted in that research trip. However, in the world of the play, “An act of violence in their community cuts them off from one another. Even though they all witness that act of violence, and everyone in this town knows all their neighbors have witnessed it, the act of violence keeps them from communicating,” he explained. “And the gulf of silence between them leads them to believe that they’re alone in their feelings of fear and moral outrage. The silence makes them wonder if anyone else will stand up with them if they try to stop such violence from happening again.”
At the close of 2016, the Lark (an international theater laboratory in N.Y.C.) asked its playwright community, “What new play, real or imagined, do you hope to see or write in 2017?” Despite a sense of outrage over our country’s new leadership, the answers had a unifying vision including such thoughts as “convening,” “inclusive,” “visibility,” “mobilizing,” and “communities.” I find hope for all of this in Seven Spots on the Sun, as, amidst this tale of citizens struggling to make it through, there is a beautiful turn when a local doctor, Moisés, miraculously finds within him the power to heal a certain disease by the touch of his own hand.
Mónica wants to take their sick daughter to see Moisés; however, her husband Luis has doubts:
The next bus leaves in an hour.
I don’t think it’s a good idea, Mónica.
I know it’s not a good idea.
Then what do you suggest we do?
More and more of the TOWN enter, swelling into a single mass that keens, prays, breathes, as one.
When people have no hope, they make up anything to believe in. I’ve seen the things a decent soldier will do on his deathbed if he thinks it’ll buy him an extra hour of life. Watched men turn themselves into animales and it disgusts me, Mónica—
We have to try.
THE SINGLE HUSHED PRAYER HAS SWELLED INTO A MASS PRAYER.
“The antidote to this silence is continuous communication. And community,” Zimmerman said. “If we know the people around us, if we know them to be reliable, we’re more likely to be bolstered by their presence and act. If we know others are as outraged and angry as we are about our political and social circumstances, it validates our feelings of outrage and anger. It emboldens us to take action.”
This production of Seven Spots is the second collaborative production from The Sol Project (they previously collaborated with New Georges to produce Hilary Bettis’s Alligator). The Sol Project describes itself as a “New York Theater-based collective devoted to producing Latinx playwrights in N.Y.C. and beyond,” and this production with Rattlestick is an inspiring example of a community coming together to create a work of American theater that focuses on the inclusive to better illuminate who we actually are as a country, despite so many attempts to keep us polarized.
While the story of Seven Spots involves an unspecified Latin America and is written by an Argentine-American playwright, at heart it is an illustration of human beings left to their own devices in how to survive a tumultuous political landscape. “These feelings of isolation, of doubt, of fear are things we also face every day in the U.S.,” said Zimmerman. “Working on this play, and seeing how people around me have responded to Trump’s administration, has changed the way I think about communication. I think about how one person’s speech contributes to a critical mass of speech. Through collective action we are preserving our own rights.”
Seven Spots on the Sun by Martín Zimmerman, directed by Weyni Mengesha, produced by Rattlestick Playwrights Theater in collaboration with the Sol Project plays April 26 – June 4, 2017 at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater (224 Waverly Place, New York).
ContributorMatthew Paul Olmos
MATTHEW PAUL OLMOS is a three-time Sundance Institute Fellowship/Residency recipient, New Dramatists Resident Playwright, Center Theatre Group LA Writers Workshop Playwright, Oregon Shakespeare Festival Black Swan Playwright, Princess Grace Awardee in Playwriting, and the inaugural La MaMa e.t.c.'s Ellen Stewart Emerging Playwright Awardee as selected by Sam Shepard. Also an Ensemble Studio Theater lifetime member and two-time Resident Artist at Mabou Mines/Suite as mentored by Ruth Maleczech. His work has been seen both nationally and internationally and is published by NoPassport Press and Samuel French. For more information, visit matthewpaulolmos.com.