“Accountability” is a word that tumbles like ash from the lips of politicians, especially during election cycles, corruption trials and impeachment inquiries. These days, it’s almost trendy.
But accountability is no abstract precept for playwright Stephanie Alison Walker or Argentinean-born actress Luisina Quarleri, who stars in Walker’s “The Abuelas.” The play, developed in the Antaeus Playwrights Lab and designed as a stand-alone companion to Walker’s acclaimed “The Madres,” raises questions concerning accountability, identity and forgiveness as it explores lingering consequences of Argentina’s “Dirty War.” Previews begin Thursday at the 80-seat Kiki & David Gindler Performing Arts Center in Glendale.
Built into the play, Walker says, is the principle of “not falling asleep on our own human rights” — because when we do, we risk losing them. While “The Madres” depicted mothers demanding the government’s return of their “disappeared” children, “The Abuelas” presents grandmothers refusing to abandon their search for the living — their grandchildren — and reconciliation. (“My dream would be to have them run in rep somewhere and be bilingual,” Walker says.) Resonance with current situations along the US-Mexico border was accidental but unavoidable.
As she typically does when writing a play, Walker started “The Abuelas” by asking herself a question: “When something like this happens, how are you able to forgive? Is it possible? On a personal level, what’s the capacity? More globally, how can you forgive your own country for turning against you?”
The junta formed by Gen. Jorge Rafael Videla after the 1976 coup d’état that unseated Eva Peron was notoriously brutal. An estimated 30,000 Argentine citizens were targeted as “subversive” and “disappeared” — political dissidents, left-wing guerrillas, pacifist college students, clergy members, artists, journalists, psychologists, intellectuals, union leaders — until Raúl Alfonsín’s civilian-led government reinstituted democracy in December 1983. After being kidnapped, tortured and often raped, most victims were killed by death squads, their bodies never recovered. Within that doomed population were many pregnant women.
1985’s historic Trial of the Juntas brought Videla and other junta officers to justice for Dirty War crimes, but due to right-wing violence and Argentina’s byzantine politics, not until 2006 did more war crimes trials proceed. Buenos Aires police commissioner Miguel Osvaldo Etchecolatz was sentenced to life in prison, charged by federal judge Carlos Rozanski with “crimes against humanity committed in the context of the genocide that took place in the Republic of Argentina between 1976 and 1983.” Among Etchecolatz’s crimes: kidnapping babies from “disappeared” parents and transferring them for adoption by upscale families politically acceptable to Videla’s regime.
“They estimate about 500 babies were stolen during that period, 1976-1983, so now they’re in their early 40s. There are still a lot to find and recover the identities of,” Walker says. “Many of the grandmothers, the abuelas, have passed; some are still alive. But every time they find one, it’s a national celebration in Argentina.” To this day, “especially in Buenos Aires,” billboards are posted, often by Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo: “If you have doubts about who you are, contact the abuelas.”
“But there’s not a lot of accountability at the government level,” Walker adds, likening the reductive attitudes of some citizens to Holocaust deniers. It isn’t like the “culture of silence” that existed at the time, when it was dangerous to even talk about how people were disappearing, but sharing Dirty War survivor stories is vital to avoid history repeating itself.
Walker often grapples with complex themes through her plays. “American Home,” which received its world premiere at South Pasadena’s Fremont Centre Theatre in 2017, tracked people who lost their homes following the 2008 crash. “The Art of Disappearing” dealt with dementia. “The Abuelas” turns on a stunning discovery made about self and family by a concert cellist in Chicago named Gabriela, portrayed by Quarleri. (She’s being musically tutored for the role by her own father, a professional cellist.)
“We had friends that were disappeared and never seen again, and we also know somebody who was taken for months and was recovered thanks to some family friends,” says Quarleri, whose family moved from Argentina to Italy when she was 3 and then, several years later, to New York. “During [the Dirty War] my mom was an art student, and at college sometimes half of her class missing. My dad didn’t want to be drafted into the military or be disappeared himself, as an artist who spoke out against the government, so he actually went to Paris to escape the climate.”
Quarleri, who’s pondering “nature vs. nurture” questions while preparing her role, considers it a privilege to participate in a work shedding light on this topic. “It’s scary the parallels going on right now,” she says. “That versions of something that happened in Argentina in the 1970s are starting to pop up in today’s news space is insane.”
Walker also has Argentinean relatives, and spent considerable time in Argentina as a child, but says her family “never talked, ever, about the Dirty War.” She learned about it through independent research, discussions with friends, and walking with the madres. When a slightly different version of “The Abuelas” ran in Chicago in February, she was surprised at how strongly people connected it to children at the US border “being taken from their parents and not being reunited when their parents are deported, and in some cases being adopted to American families, and being placed in cages and demonized and victimized.”
More than anything, what she wants people to understand is that “this is a living history that is unfolding; that people’s lives are still, today, greatly impacted by the repercussions of Argentina’s Dirty War and the dictatorship. I want to honor that journey, that process, and how hard it is for so many people. It isn’t just the babies stolen, or the grandparents looking; there are so many family members … [and adults] having another tearing away of their identity. Even though it’s a restoration, it’s very difficult.”
“The Abuelas” begins previews at Antaeus Theatre Company, Kiki & David Gindler Performing Arts Center, 110 E. Broadway, Glendale, at 8 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 10, and the play runs through Nov. 25; $35 ($15 for preview tickets). Reservations and info: (818) 506-1983. Antaeus.org