The second time we see him in the flesh, after the cleansing of the performance space, José Torres-Tama walks alone, singing, in circular repetition, “I’m on my way-ay-ay, I’m on my way.” He travels across the stage, interjecting with comments about himself and the country he lives in, and as the 43 candles around him glow, he begins to walk through U.S. history, without whitewashing or sugarcoating. As he continues narrating the past, the information he conveys begins to travel on its way too, from artist to audience.
United States of Amnesia: Dare to Remember (Estados Unidos de amnesia: atrévete a recorder) is a one-man performance ritual that ran one weekend only at GALA Hispanic Theatre. A piece specially commissioned from artist José Torres-Tama and lighting designer John Grimsley, the rito performativo spotlights the hidden memories of American history. Over the course of two hours, Torres-Tame creatively and purposefully uses video collages, light and shadow, modern music, poetic prose, and Andean panpipe (by an astounding Juan Cayrampoma) to illuminate American atrocities that thrive in secrecy, in unremembered spaces. With these elements, as well as objects that feel far more like meaningful tools than props, he creates a nonlinear ritual of “magical realist Latino voodoo aesthetics” that asks us to remember what textbooks would have us forget.
Torres-Tama is meticulous but extensive in the events he chooses to emphasize, asking us to look at policy spanning hundreds of years at the same time that he presents us with events like the 2014 Iguala Mass Kidnapping. The 43 candles that line Torres-Tama’s performance space are dedicated to the spirits of the 43 missing students. Elements like these embed fantastical yet significant details into the performance, incorporating shining face paint, sparklers, and music into the sharing of history. It’s an extremely clever tactic, working outside of the purely linear and English textbook-centric way the United States teaches the past while implanting these facts in our brains through the use of musical repetition and memorable visuals. Not only that, but Torres-Tama asks us to be active participants in our own learning, engaging the audience throughout the ritual, asking us to respond to his words, and to speak up when we don’t express how we feel.
It is Torres-Tama’s completely candid moments in response to these feelings, the ones that I’m not sure I would have witnessed had I come on any other day, that move the performance into a truly touching space. In response to the copious moments in the ritual that necessitate audience participation, Torres-Tama will often improvise a response right back. But more than showing the artist’s wit wrapped up in a clever comment, these remarks, by nature of their spontaneity, bring forth the well of emotions below, the ones that are driving the will of the artist. It is evident in joyful moments, in the times where Torres-Tama pauses for a moment, then reminds us “some jokes I do just for me,” acknowledging his deep connection to self, willingness to share, and lack of need for validation. In another, truly heartbreaking instance, Torres-Tama speaks about immigrant workers being erased from the history of New Orleans after Katrina. His voice breaks: “It’s so traumatic,” he repeats, “it’s so traumatic.”
These impromptu but voluntary details usually contain gravity, vulnerability, and far more emotion than the written words convey, an idea that encapsulates the performance at its very best. It magnifies the importance of history we do not learn, history that is emotional, history that is spoken or written. When Torres-Tama’s emotional vulnerability aligns with the facts he presents, his honesty clears the waters, and makes it possible for us to see the full depth of this history, the line that traces from then, through now, and on to the future. United States of Amnesia shines when it does this, finding the specificity and humanity while covering broad swaths of history.
That sweeping scope is the only place where the performance ritual perhaps works against itself. In trying to cover the violent history of the United States from past to present, United States of Amnesia occasionally makes it difficult to remember every event under scrutiny. The atrocities committed in our country in the last month alone could never be encompassed in a two-hour runtime, so it makes sense that the sheer breadth of the history examined in United States of Amnesia would make it difficult to remember the details of what happened where and to whom. This history, imperative as it is to learn, is not something one person, even working with a team of creators, can tackle. More than that, it is not something that one person should be responsible for tackling.
And that might just be the great point of the work. Perhaps those details aren’t the most important thing. Perhaps instead, Torres-Tama is encouraging us to go home, do our own research, and become our own historians. Perhaps we are meant to take up the mantle of remembrance for ourselves.
Running Time: Two hours, no intermission.
United States of Amnesia: Dare to Remember
Written and performed by José Torres-Tama
Creative Lighting Design by John Grimsley
GALA presents stunning one-man ‘Aliens, Immigrants & Other Evil Doers’ (review of José Torres-Tama’s previous show, by Malcolm Lewis Barnes)