The play by Teatro Akabal reminds audiences of past brutal mass murders in the Central American nation and current threats against Maya communities–and their impact on U.S. immigration.
Seven times since 2009, the play “Sentado en un Árbol Caído” (Sitting on a Fallen Tree) has shined among the productions at Teatro Frida Kahlo with a heart-wrenching story about a Maya massacre that happened in Guatemala in the 1980s. This past weekend, a brief version of the play celebrated the long history and indomitable spirit of the small LA-based Latino theater and theater companies focused on themes relevant to Spanish-speaking immigrants. It also made the case for the return of the play in full production next year.
For nearly 20 minutes at the Goethe-Institut Los Angeles, the condensed drama and one-man show by the group Teatro Akabal Theater gripped the audience with its story about a massacre of indigenous people by the Guatemala Army as told by a 10-year-old survivor. The play is in Spanish with some Mayan Quiche.
Actor Manuel Chitay Cos is a tour-de-force, masterfully switching roles between the terrified and traumatized boy and the heartless killer of his months-old brother. Especially unbearable was listening to the retelling of how the infant brutally died at the hands of the soldier. That child was among 70 women and 107 children slaughtered by soldiers in the small Maya community of Xococ in 1982, one of reportedly hundreds of massacres in Guatemala. (It’s worthwhile to note that a U.N.-sponsored Truth Commission concluded that in certain Maya regions the Guatemalan government committed genocide.)
Chitay’s delivery made audience members cry; at the end of the play, this reporter painfully struggled between applauding a powerful performance and processing the fresh retelling of such a horrific tragedy. The actor even transcended a compelling script by play director Emanuel Loarca in which the boy sometimes speaks unnaturally formally as an adult. But Chitay skillfully captures the child’s voice helping one to overlook the dialogue limitations and remain connected with the young character throughout the performance. The 30-something, youthful-looking thespian has been playing the drama’s lead for over two decades.
The staging of “Sentado en un Árbol Caído” at the Goethe-Institut was part of “Disrupting the Mainstream,” a retrospective series of 35 years of the Sinergia Grupo de Teatro and three decades of the Frida Kahlo theater–two institutions with which Teatro Akabal has worked with through the years. They all stage works in Spanish and tackle topics affecting immigrants. The Sept. 2 show was preceded by a Maya invocation and followed by a panel of Guatemalan activists and genocide and torture survivors, including Florildama Boj Lopez, an assistant professor at UCLA’s César E. Chávez Department of Chicana/o Studies who also holds a master’s degree in Chicana/o Studies from California State University, Northridge.
The affecting drama reminded us about the importance of the arts to speak truth to power, the need to never become complacent about bigotry anywhere in the world, and–to paraphrase a popular American motto for racial justice–that indigenous lives matter. Some progress in Guatemala notwithstanding, panelists stated that Maya are still being repressed, abused and threatened.
Akabal focuses on Central American stories for L.A.’s growing population from that region of the world, whose countries have endured various civil wars, political instability, and genocide in the case of indigenous communities. In the case of Guatemala, the decades-long internal armed conflict has left more than 200,000 dead and 45,000 missing people, and suffered 663 massacres, according to the theater group’s literature. Additionally, over one million people have been displaced, most going to Mexico, the United States and Canada. The journal Southern Spaces estimates that more than 500,000 Maya live in the U.S. Los Angeles is a popular destination. All this makes Loarca’s soul-stirring tale relevant for the sizable Maya community, Latinos and diverse mainstream Americans in general.
The Guatemalan drama debuted at the Kahlo theater in 2009, with two shows. The public’s response keeps it coming back. “We’ve presented this work seven times with a total of about 50 shows,” says Ruben Amavizca, the venue’s director. He added that “Sitting on a Fallen Tree” might return to the Latino theater again. “We’re talking about bringing it back in 2023. It’s Akabal’s most popular work.”
Akabal is currently conducting a crowdfunding effort online to stay alive. Visit https://gofund.me/2c8c5139.
The “Disrupting the Mainstream” series continues through Sept. 16 with more play works, a poster exhibit and a student photo exhibit. More info: Teatro Frida Kahlo Theater