Prison Prayers

Mabou Mines Summons the Ghosts of Belén

A woman swishes a broom delicately across the floor, as if trying to blow away the accumulated dust of history. Soon, she begins to thwack it with an almost giddy force, slapping out a drum-brush beat that punctuates a strangely lilting plaint, sung by another woman at a nearby piano. The song doesn't exactly illustrate or underscore the physical action as it tells of a servant girl "raised/just to be noticed/when you need to notice something wrong." Rather, sound, text, and movement follow separate trajectories that sometimes intersect, sometimes run parallel, and sometimes, by contradicting each other, collide.

To the artists from New York and Mexico City who have created Las Horas de Belén: A Book of Hours—running through May 30 at Mabou Mines—such a polyvalent form seemed like the only way to evoke the countless voices and range of emotions that once ricocheted around the Recogimiento de Belén. In this 17th-century Mexico City "refuge," unmarried women, prostitutes, and other transgressive females were held captive and subjected to a grueling regimen of chores and prayers. In the mid 1800s, the site became a prison in earnest—one of Mexico's most notorious. It was torn down in 1935.

Belén is virtually forgotten today, says Jesusa Rodriguez, the performer-choreographer of Las Horas, who, along with the show's composer-singer, Liliana Felipe, runs Mexico City's adventurous theater La Capilla and its biting political cabaret, El Hábite. But Belén's legacy—"All the darkness of the world/poured into one space;/three centuries of screams/scratched into its walls"—can still be felt, Rodriguez suggests, in the plight of women toiling in nearby maquiladoras, and indeed, in countless horrifying places around the world. "There are still millions of women working in the same way as in the 17th century," she says.

Mexico City’s Jesusa Rodriguez in Las Horas de Belén: A Book of Hours
Julie Archer
Mexico City’s Jesusa Rodriguez in Las Horas de Belén: A Book of Hours

The captives in the Recogimiento would, no doubt, have structured their tedious existence with a Book of Hours—a volume of prayers for each part of the day, accompanied by religious illustrations on each facing page. Director Ruth Maleczech, one of the virtuosos of Mabou Mines, has translated that static diptych into vibrant theatrical terms in Las Horas: On one side of the stage, Felipe (dressed in a suave, silver-trimmed mariachi suit) performs 12 songs with a fiery intensity; on the other, Rodriguez plays out an abstracted scenario of action that Maleczech scripted. The song texts, originally written in English by the American poet Catherine Sasanov, are sung in Spanish, while the English words scroll along a wall above. Meanwhile, images drawn by the artist Julie Archer from such sources as old photographs and saint paintings are projected from time to time on various available surfaces—walls, curtains, Rodriguez's body. In the clash and confluence of these events, Las Horas creates a complete, disquieting universe. More associative than narrative, the performance never actually tells the history of Belén. Rather, it summons Belén's ghosts—and their cousins from all the places women have been tormented—for a ghoulish yet gorgeous encounter.

To Maleczech, the idea of breaking apart the once-honored Gesamtkunstwerk is familiar enough in the post-'80s American avant-garde: "It's just plain old deconstruction." But Rodriguez finds "amazing new research" in the approach. And what has amazed Maleczech in this cultural exchange? The lyricism, layered sense of history, and unsentimental but full-out emotion that her Mexican collaborators have brought to the process—qualities that have long been swatted away from American experimental theater by its relentless irony. "You can describe this work as binational, bilingual, all those buzzwords," Maleczech says. "But the really interesting thing is that it's bi-aesthetic."

In part the marriage works because each artistic element itself responds to both impulses: Archer's slides are simultaneously ornate and spare, ancient and contemporary. Felipe's music finds discordance in a corrido, or lets a dirge erupt into a danzón. Sasanov's text—the 12 poems as well as five interruptive prose segments performed by Monica Dionne—paints sharp images that seem eerily familiar here in New York, yet are moored to specific moments and locales that belong thoroughly to Mexico.

Without speaking a word during the play, Rodriguez enacts women's timeless chores—ironing, sewing, cooking—in exacting ways, sometimes transforming these labors into stark images of women's subjugation. Her movement, neither realistic nor romantic, jerks and sputters ever so slightly, as if to emphasize the archetypal nature of this endless drudgery. Maleczech likens it to Meyerhold's biomechanics; Rodriguez says she found inspiration in watching stop-action films of growing plants.

Along with some downright furious or comic scenes, this approach to the movement, Rodriguez says, has helped her avoid "the danger of being always a victim, of suffering, suffering, suffering." She pauses and asks, "But how can you speak about the situation of poor women and not be suffering?" She pauses again. "The answer must be in the entire performance."

 
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