Literature Program

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Co-sponsored/co-presented by:
Subversive Theatre Collective

Speak Truth to Power: Voices from Beyond the Dark

Presented at:

In celebration of May Day, Subversive Theatre Collective presents a staged reading of the play Speak Truth to Power: Voices from Beyond the Dark by exiled Chilean author, activist, and playwright Ariel Dorfman. Perhaps best known as a playwright for Death and the Maiden, which examined the complex process of reconciliation in post-Pinochet Chile, Dorfman was commissioned to write this play by Kerry Kennedy Cuomo, co-author with photojournalist Eddie Adams of the documentary book Speak Truth to Power: Human Rights Defenders Who Are Changing Our World. Kennedy Cuomo asked Dorfman to write something that would celebrate and memorialize the efforts and sufferings of the defenders documented in her book, transforming them from reports of campaigns mounted and atrocities endured into aesthetic moments felt. Given hundreds of pages of transcripts from her interviews with the defenders, Dorfman was charged with weaving the stories into a dramatic structure.

Born in Argentina to Jewish émigré parents, Dorfman split his youth between Chile and the United States, and finally left his homeland in 1983 under political pressure. "I feel like my whole life was preparation for this project," he said of the play at the time of its premiere. "It became my turn to try and figure out how I could write stories and find the words that explored the vast heart of human suffering and the vaster complexity and enigmas of evil." Ever since going into exile, he "had been waiting for the occasion to put my art yet one more time at the service of those who had kept me warm in the midst of my own struggles." Yet the play also raises a question that has been asked by countless artists, scholars, and critics since Goya's bloody painting The Third of May: What is the place of art after atrocity?

Speak Truth to Power includes pages-long accounts of specific instances of suffering, concrete images of persecution read by eight actors representing the activists. In addition, Dorfman invented a ninth voice, the figure of "the Man." "The Man starts out as the voice of the state, the repressive authority. He's an evangelist of evils, the voice of the defenders' adversary." Flanked on each side by four "voices," the Man blurts out threats like, "She knows. She can't say she isn't walking into this with her eyes open, that we didn't warn her. She can't say she doesn't know." As the play advances, the individual voices gather courage, and it becomes clear that physical repression won't stop these people. They don't fear death anymore, so the Man morphs into the one thing left they do fear: that no one cares about their struggles.

"The Man provides a dramatic element," Dorfman has explained. "But there's also the narrative element, that is, how to tell these stories in an interesting way. And there's a poetic element, in that the play is constructed from their words, but with beauty added in the arrangement of those words." In looking to find poetry in a set of journalistic interviews, "I immersed myself in the voices, turned phrases over until I found a way of opening. And I settled on the verb 'I know': 'I know what it is to wait in the dark for torture,' one line goes. And I made it a refrain, 'knowing this, knowing this.'"

Ariel Dorfman read at Hallwalls 20 years ago this year—in 1987. His story entitled "The X Factor"—an excerpt from his then brand-new novel The Last Song of Manuel Sendero (Viking, 1987)—was published in the acclaimed Hallwalls anthology Blatant Artifice 2/3.