Eight Gypsies and a play by Lorca

Take eight illiterate gitanas to perform a play by the great Spanish poet. The point of this experiment in Seville is to take at least the barb of artistic exclusion out of social segregation: a subject of debate for the European Encounters series at the Avignon Summer Festival.

Published on 9 July 2010 at 10:33
Teatro Español de Madrid |  The actresses of "The House of Bernarda Albasur"

Olive-complexioned Rocío Montero is 50 years old and dwells in El Vacie, near Seville, one of the oldest Gypsy shantytowns in Europe. She’s been living there for over 20 years with her husband Manolo, a scrap dealer, and her seven children. A few months ago, thanks to a TNT International Centrefor Theatrical investigation workshop, Rocío and seven other Gypsy women discovered the work of Federico García Lorca, “such a good man who did so much for us”. Smitten with the theatre, the eight Sevillian gitanas joined the play – and took part in a unique social integration project in Spain. The artistic results were applauded by the critics and even by Laura García Lorca, the poet’s niece and president of the Federico García Lorca Foundation.

Obvious parallels with characters in the play

“At first they thought Lorca was still alive,” grins Pepa Gamboa, the director of this very special version of The House of Bernarda Alba. “Some of them don’t know how to read and write, and obviously they don’t have any drama training, but they make up for it with tremendous enthusiasm.” “We are ‘literate’” [sic], as they kept saying in the interviews. But that didn’t keep them from memorising their lines. Rocío recalls the rehearsals in her raspy voice: “Pepa read me the lines and I repeated them: once, twice, three, five times…till I knew them by heart.”

The radical angle of this particular production induced Pepa Gamboa to prune the lines a little and allow some more up-to-date approximations. For added plausibility, the play was then enhanced with contributions from the actresses themselves. The effect is one of surprisingly dramatic intensity. And it is thanks to the constancy of the women’s efforts that this one-of-a-kind project found a public and could tour Spain. “A brief glimpse at the lives of these women suffices to see the obvious parallels with characters in the play, women subjected to suffocating and atrocious confinement. This setting of social isolation is daily life for the Gypsy women from El Vacie, and quite close to that of Angustias, Magdalena, Amelia, Martirio and Adela, Lorca’s heroines. What happens in the play isn’t a tragedy to them, it’s their day-to-day lives,” stresses Pepa Gamboa.

A house neither rain nor rats can get into

The first shows went down very well. “In November, we were in the El Vacie district, and by February at the [prestigious] Teatro Español de Madrid. We played to a packed house for a fortnight,” says Pepa Gamboa. This appreciation helped the actresses to self-confidence – and to their first employment contract. And yet, by a strange paradox, “They are still suffering from their marginalisation. They are still barred from entering some places. Often I have to accompany them to get a taxi to take them. The guards even refused to let them into a party that was actually being given in their honour.”

Today Rocío is earning money as an actress, but she keeps her feet on the ground. She knows her life is waiting for her in El Vacie, and the only thing she really yearns for is not a career in acting, but a house “that neither the rain nor the rats can get into”, a home in which her whole family might live in dignity.

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