Teenage actors parade barefoot onstage, jumping and pounding drums. Others walk in with notebooks and briefcases overflowing with papers. Each actor spouts fragmented political speeches. The play depicts revolts and counter-revolts throughout Bolivian history, ending with a dramatic exchange between a mother and the ghost of her dead son, tortured during a dictatorship. “Don’t cry, Mom!” the ghost says. “I died bravely even though they gouged my eyes out and tore me apart. Don’t cry!”
“Bolivia’s history is one big tear,” actor Vladimir Mamani Paco, 27, tells me after the show. “It’s a history of frustration, but also of glory.”
At Teatro Trono, located in El Alto, a sprawling city neighboring La Paz, homeless children are the actors, and the plays deal head on with Bolivia’s harsh reality.
Indeed, such themes aren’t distant from daily life in this working-class city, where state repression against protesters has been common, and the question of nationalizing Bolivian natural resources still divides the population.
The theater stands out against El Alto’s flat landscape. The seven-story building confronts the sky in a posture of defiance like a giant, many-windowed pirate ship. When I arrive, the sound of hammers and music mixes with the cheers of actors. Puppet-making and juggling lessons go on in the same room. It’s a bustling environment, a cocktail of order and chaos.
In Spanish, the word trono means something that breaks, falls down, or crashes, but it also means “throne.”
“That’s black humor,” says Iván Nogales, the group’s founder and director. “The actors would say, ‘I’m broken, I’m from the streets.’ But at the new theater they’d say, ‘I am the king. I live on the throne.’ ”
Nogales started the theater company in the 1980s during the military dictatorship of Luís García Meza. Government repression made it hard to perform. “We were trying to reclaim democracy through art,” he says. But the police would often arrive to shut down their street performances, sending actors running for safety. This first Trono group was composed of homeless children whom Nogales invited to live in his apartment, which included a stage that converted into beds at night. This was the beginning of what is now Teatro Trono.
Their book, El mañana es hoy, contains stories of Teatro Trono told by the actors. Chila, whose family’s alcoholism forced him into homelessness at age nine, said the street was his home. There he united with his friends and shared food, spoils from robberies, and drugs until he found Trono. “We have reconstructed a family [for street children],” Nogales says. “Now many of them are teachers here.” Though the theater started out working with homeless children, Trono now works more on prevention rather than rehabilitation, with outreach efforts that seek to stop children from becoming drug addicts.
In one Trono play called The Meeting of the Water Gods, a businessman buys a river from local residents who later come to him for a drink. One girl gives the man her earrings for a small cup of water, which she shares with the whole community. Such a scenario is familiar to El Alto residents, who have dealt with high water costs, privatization, pollution, and water shortages.
Describing the collaborative writing and performing of a recent play, Mamani Paco says, “Some studied the Chaco War. Others studied the mining movements. We had meetings and study sessions, and learned little by little. People eventually put it all together. All of this was done collectively without a director.”
“I like what I do here,” he continues. “You fall in love with this place. The kids learn something, and it helps them.” The camaraderie is another reason he has stuck around. “If you don’t have money to eat, someone helps out,” he says. “It’s a community.”
I walk into a Trono room that smells like a high school gym class. Jeremy Kevin Acarapi Garay, 13, the most outspoken and boisterous of the group, advertises his temperament with wildly spiked hair. At Trono, he says, “they make us do theater in front of people we have never met. They help us lose our fear.” I ask if he was excited about the group’s upcoming tour in Europe, where they will perform plays on the traditional use of coca leaves in the Andes. “It’ll be a great adventure,” he says, a smile spreading across his face.
Benjamin Dangl edits UpsideDownWorld.org, a Web site on activism and politics in Latin America. This is an adapted excerpt from his new book, The Price of Fire: Resource Wars and Social Movements in Bolivia (AK Press, 2007).