Ever since the Europeans first occupied Argentina in 1516 it has been a country in turmoil, laden with multiple military coups and revolutions. The most infamous era began with the death of Juan Domingo Peron in 1974 and lasted until the election in 1983 of the democratic President Raul Alfonsin.
Turmoil turned to crisis, which turned to horror as the government, controlled by "The Generals," resulted in the sacrifice of human rights and human lives in the name of "order." The government relied on emergency decrees, including special executive authority to contain violence by allowing the state to imprison people indefinitely without charging them. Speaking out against the government could result in death.
It is during these years that playwright Adina Ruskin sets her play I Hear (in Spanish Oigo) playing at the John Houseman Theatre Studio thru April 8. "A play with music," I Hear is musical to many different ears, performed both in English (with a dash of Spanish) and in sign language.
In the play, at the height of the military regime, a young, deaf songwriter named Isabella (Jackie Roth, who does all the signing) decides she will no longer sit quietly and watch the atrocities ravish her country. Despite the pleading of her inner-voice (literally played by Gerard Edery, who also composed and performed all the music), Isabella writes a controversial song that speaks out against her government, and it is this defiance that gets her shot. All of this occurs in the play's first ten minutes.
The rest of the play is a reflection on Isabella's life, a survey of victims of the same intolerance that Isabella suffered, and a history of the creation of "The Mothers & Grandmothers of The Plaza de Mayo", a group of women crusading to find the children kidnapped from women who were pregnant when they were imprisoned. If it sounds intense, it is. "It's not easy to be heroes," says Ruskin of the Mothers, "but if we stand to together we don't have to be."
This is material that Ruskin knows well. She has always made annual trips to Argentina, but it wasn't until later in life that she realized what was happening there. Because she comes from one of Argentina's more affluent families, she was at first oblivious, but like the lead character in I Hear, Ruskin didn't stay silent for long. "I actually really became politically aware from Chilean acquaintances that protested their government," says Ruskin, who admits that it sometimes takes a personal connection for people to become proactive.
Ruskin, now the artistic director of ASA Productions, writes in their newsletter: "I Hear began five years ago as an assignment for a professional performers collective I belonged to. We were asked to submit a ten-minute play on the theme of water. As we were driving up to Connecticut for a visit, the thought that spit was a form of water literally popped into my brain. In 1980, when I was 16, I wrote a poem while in Argentina about the repression and the disappeared called, Oigo (I Hear in English). The last line of that poem is: 'Freedom drowning in the spit of a tyrant'...In the next 20 minutes I wrote a rough draft of my ten-minute play." When asked how dangerous was it to write such a poem in 1980, Adina laughs and says, "I never had it published! In fact, I didn't show it to anybody."
In mounting the show, what was important to Ruskin had to become important to the cast. She made sure that they fully researched everything to do with the story, including a cast viewing of the Argentine movie about the kidnappings called The Official Story and the reading of The Lexicon of Terror and Circle of Life.
Although the characters in the play were fictitious, everything about them had to be real. In 1986, while on a three-month visit in Argentina, Ruskin conducted a series of interviews with young people who shared their stories. She later interviewed survivors here in the U.S. The stories in I Hear are an amalgamation of those stories, as well as her own.
At the conclusion of the play, the curtains open to reveal a "wall of memories"--a mural of hundreds of pictures of the nearly 30,000 missing. Ruskin was given permission to copy them from the Mother's website, with one caveat: that they use no names. "They said that they shouldn't be separated, they were all of Argentina's children."
Adina Ruskin and ASA Productions have high hopes of an extended commercial run, but only so that they may share these stories with as many people as possible. As one of the characters in the play says to another, and as Ruskin echoes to me later on, "You can't bury grief without a story."
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