Report #2: ‘Callado Conmigo’ (‘Silenced Within Me’) at GALA Hispanic Theatre

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It was an informal gathering. Barefoot. Casual attire. Just a handful of women standing in a semi-circle, reciting words from a page.

They were from a variety of South and Central American countries, different socio-economic levels, educational attainment, and bearing. What they had in common was that none was a trained actor, and each had been a victim of abuse. Each found her way to the project – a reading in Spanish recounting violence against women – having learned about it at Mary’s Center, a community health center with offices in and around D.C. The accounts of domestic and sexual abuse came from these and other women, as told to the presentation’s Costa Rican-American playwright, Elia Arces.

Composer and Singer Maria Isolina in Silenced Within Me. Photo courtesy of GALA Hispanic Theatre.

There were tales of forced sex, mental and physical abuse, child abuse, being tortured – the exact details of their tales are best left untold here, since some of these women are still under threat by their abusers, and at least one has a restraining order.

The script was an amalgam of many stories, cut into pieces, and quilt-stitched together so that the fragments of one story seamed with those of another until all blended into one. The effect is that the audience is confused, bewildered, and trying to make sense of what is actually happening, which according to the playwright is the point: these women were also confused and bewildered by what had happened to them.

“Ninguna persona tenia una historia completa.” (“Not one person had the whole story from beginning to end,”) said Arces during the post-presentation Q&A. “I played with the confusion because I believe that the details of what happened to [which person] weren’t really important. Let that go. It doesn’t matter what happened to them, and why. What matters is that it happened to a human being.”

The women who show up to read have not been cast into a specific role. There are no rehearsals; they do not go over their lines. The way Arces stages it, no woman who arrives will read any portion of her own story, but it is possible that in the staging that is unique to that night, she will hear her own story being read by another.

“I always trust that whoever is going to show up is the one who is supposed to be there to do the show,” Arces said. The catharsis and healing these women seek comes through reading the first-person stories of abuse aloud.

The title, Callado Conmigo (Silenced within Me) juxtaposed with the fact that the women are not telling their stories themselves, but are listening as their stories are drawn from within them into the circle by other women who do the talking for them…offers a powerful way for the women to bear witness to one another, and heal.

Performers of Callado Conmigo (Silenced Within Me). Photo courtesy of GALA Hispanic Theatre.

That all the women were barefoot, signaled their vulnerability as well as their innocence.

Many of them were vulnerable before they were victimized: they were often sent from home alone, conditioned to be obedient, reliant on others. They didn’t always speak the language of their location. They did not know what had happened to loved ones, including their own children, once they had been isolated from them.

At times, the women clucked and laughed upon hearing the various tales of horror done to one another, but they did not cry. The only overt emotion demonstrated was that of an angry man’s tirade being acted out through shouts and shaking fists. This dispassionate recounting had a disconcerting, but medicinal effect as these women calmly endured, the words they heard acting as clinical incisions to remove the shards of shame.

The stream of consciousness of the script was broken twice: once to dance slowly into a tight circle, and once to sing along with a Honduran musician whose original song of resolve and resilience was replete with the depth and bluesy grit of Flamenco.

The women that night chose their own costumes — an act of self-reclamation. Brightly colored shawls, redolent of the tropics, the colors of a child’s piñata. Rather than sway from the pummels of others, however, these women swayed together in their undulating dance, bright flowers in a gentle breeze.

Running Time: 50 minutes, with no intermission.

Callado Conmigo (Silenced Within Me) played for two performances on June 2 and 3, 2017, at GALA Hispanic Theatre – 3333 14th Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For future events at GALA, go online.