Mail from the deep
Emma and Marjorie wrote letters. Simple as that—or not.
Nevada Shakespeare Company’s production Amigas was adapted for the stage by its actresses, L. Martina Young and Jeanmarie Simpson, from the book Amigas: Letters of Friendship and Exile by Emma Sepúlveda and Marjorie Agosín. The book is a compilation of letters that Emma and Marjorie exchanged over the course of 35 years. The play isn’t much more: two friends in austere clothing on a barely there set reading their correspondence. Their hands clutch stationary most of the time.
Throughout the play, Emma (Young) recites letters she wrote, while Marjorie (Simpson) pretends to read papers and vice versa. They read back and forth, from 1965 to 2000. The actresses’ eyes rarely connect. They seldom rise from their seats. Every now and then, though, one of them stands, walks to a folded tapestry on the floor, picks it up, cradles it in her arms, then disappears behind a suspended black drape. When she returns the embroidered fabric is gone, and the audience doesn’t get to find out the purpose of these ritualistic acts until the end of the play.
The tapestries are arpilleras. Arpilleras are the embroideries and fabric collages created by Chilean women whose husbands and loved ones were kidnapped and abducted by General Augusto Pinochet’s intelligence agency. Pinochet ruled Chile from 1973 to 1990 under the moniker Dictator.
The arpilleras are central to the play’s theme of making ends meet—sewing bits of a broken life together to make a complete one. In their letters, Emma and Marjorie talk about boys, abortions, death, religion—Emma thinks she killed Christ—and they express their concerns about the atrocities being committed by Pinochet’s regime.
While in Chile, they strongly identify with their womanhood, but when they move to the United States, they begin to identify more with their ethnicity and with the culture they feel they’ve lost. When Emma first came to the United States, her friends welcomed her by taking her out to Mexican food. She’d never had a burrito before—"Isn’t that donkey meat?”
The letters are rich with simplicity, insight and sophistication. The bringing together of mail from a lifetime creates its own arpillera, a tapestry and a web that connects through time and space, across history, racial boundaries and religious stereotypes.
The language of the letters is the heart and emotion of the play. That language is enhanced by music that peaks and falls with the tempo of the prose as the actresses recite their lines. Black-and-white photographs flash on the backdrop throughout the production. Sometimes, the words coupled with the music and the photos are almost too much to bear. There are many goosebump moments in this play.
Director Cameron Crain creates a minimal and yet profound piece. Young and Simpson do an exceptional job, working with little more than their own facial expressions. And the things Emma and Marjorie wrote to one another will tickle your ears and make you arm hairs stand on end. The craftsmanship is superb.