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By Jon Kaplan
Marilo Nunez remembers when, in her theatre school days, she was labelled a Latin American performer, allowed only certain roles because of her look and her skill with a Spanish accent.
She smiles at the memory, but there’s a touch of bitterness behind the smile.
“When you’re young and training for theatre, you want to please everyone and find it hard to stand up for what you should,” she says. “Years later, I founded Alameda Theatre in part to take care of that young woman who didn’t have a voice.”
The company makes its mainstage debut with the premiere of Carmen Aguirre’s The Refugee Hotel, a powerful, realistic look at a group of Chileans who fled the 1973 military coup in their homeland and settled in Vancouver.
“It’s a personal story for me,” notes Nunez, whose Chilean family, like that of playwright/director Aguirre, came to Canada after the overthrow of Salvador Allende’s government. “When I first read the script, I saw Latin American characters who were real people, not stereotypes.
“That’s one of the major points for me, that all of the dozen characters – eight of whom are Latin – have rich, full arcs. Each is on a journey, and the audience is with them every step of the way.”
The characters are housed in a Vancouver hotel, the costs taken care of by government agencies. While they often have trouble communicating with the Canadians around them, the emotional connections among all the figures onstage are striking and clear. And surprisingly, there’s humour mixed in with the pain.
The central figures are married couple Jorge and Flaca. He’s an accountant, she’s a university professor. Both Allende supporters, they have different ways of experiencing the world.
“Jorge is a naive man who accepts life as it is, thinking neither about the past nor the future,” says Nunez. “Only when he’s jailed does he find his political consciousness. In contrast, Flaca has convictions and puts her beliefs ahead of everything else to join the resistance.
“He’s like water, she’s like a rock. The play is about how they find a way to come together.”
Of course, Nunez hopes the play will attract a Chilean audience – “the community is ready for it now” – but also other groups who know the experience of being exiled.
“The play is universal that way. It’s not about being Latin American, but about being a new person in a new place. At its core, it deals with love and community – how important it is to have both to help sustain you.”
“Nor is it a historic piece. Recently, Carmen visited a refugee hotel at Bathurst and College. Its residents are from Afghanistan and Iraq and have been in Canada for two weeks. This is a play about the here and now.”
In a parallel fashion, the artists involved with The Refugee Hotel speak to the show’s universality; the actors and designers are Colombian, Mexican, Chilean, Israeli, Venezuelan, Serbian, Italian and First Nations.
Having little funding, Nunez and her film-director husband devised a series of short documentaries – they call them “blogumentaries” – about the process of getting the show up. There are seven so far (refugeehotel.blogspot.com), with more to come.
“In the first one, standing in Theatre Passe Muraille, I began listing the cast members and started to cry. It’s the first time I actually gave voice to what I’d been working on for years, and here it was, coming true.”
This article first appeared in NOW Magazine in 2009.