Elizabeth Swados' "Missionaries"

by Barry Drogin

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Made my once-per-decade pilgrimage out to Brooklyn's BAM, this time for their presentation of Elizabeth Swados' "Missionaries", a sort of Requiem Mass/Opera about the martyrdom of the four Maryknoll nuns (actually, lay missionaries) murdered in Salvador in 1980. The piece meets its goal successfully, if with difficulty, and some of the structural and aesthetic problems may mainly be due to questions about whether it has chosen its goal appropriately.

Swados has delved deeply into the diaries and journals of the four women, as well as travelling to Salvador to meet with the mothers of the disappeared, and contacting the relatives and friends of the women. As such, she has attempted to create a piece which honors the women's memory, and tries to explain to the families why they made the choices they did. As such, the piece is presented in English, with smatterings of Spanish and Latin (it opens, for example, with "Kyrie Eleison"). The use of the women's own words anchors the piece, giving it a documentary immediacy but also, unfortunately, keeping any aesthetic flights contained, which is both its blessing and its curse.

In the most aesthetically satisfying piece, the opening, she weaves the words of the women together into a continuous stream, tossing the words from one woman to the next, forming duos, trios and quartets and unifying the four women. She then spends the rest of the piece differentiating them, but primarily framing the piece around the story of the youngest, who left her boyfriend in the States to minister to the poor. This points up the piece's problems, for this woman is both the audience's entry into the "alien" culture, and a demonstration of the difficulty the piece will have in portraying the Salvadorans as non-"alien".

When the piece takes risks, it pays off. The eldest nun, in awkward glasses, tells of breaking into an Irish jig when she is nervous, and then does so. A woman sings a sad lullaby to her pantomimed child, then buries it. The subsequent confrontation between the mother and the eldest nun is powerful --- the nun promises to give up her bed, sleep on the dirt, paint the word "Home" on a rock in the mother's hut and care for her children. But then she rejoins the other three. Are these just words? Did she live out the rest of her stay this way?

Father Romero, their parish priest, spouts Liberation Theology sermons which, veering close to Communist sympathies, get him killed by the "democratic" military junta. Before his death, he promises a child who likes to "borrow" the church's few holy objects that he will take him to Disneyland if the child will stop being bad for a year, then admits that he, too, has been naughty by causing trouble with the authorities. Later, the child is killed, then the priest, and when the women are given the opportunity to leave but decide to stay amongst death threats, their fate is sealed. Swados shies away from portraying their murders (their van stopped, led down a ravine, raped and killed), or giving them a post-death voice at the end. Respectful aesthetic choices, but ultimately dissatisfying. Consider Joan of Arc, Oedipus, even The Death of Klinghoffer.

In the final analysis, "Missionaries" does a stupendous job of giving a voice to the four women who chose to remain with the poor people they had come to help, in the face of assured assassination. It tries to give a voice to the poor Salvadorans, too, but, with no sets or costumes, in its story theatre way doesn't completely satisfy, succeeding only sporadically.

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Last Updated: August 4, 2007