Catherine Filloux and Poetic Political Theater

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[article as originally published in The Clyde Fitch Report, February 28, 2017.]

Poetry, design concepts, political themes and strong female characters distinguish the work of playwright and activist Catherine Filloux. My first exposure to her theatrical style was Luz in 2012, about abused women seeking political asylum and an attorney who works with them. I missed her 2004 Eyes of the Heart about Cambodian refugee women with psychosomatic blindness caused by sights they witnessed during the Khymer Rouge but was quite entranced by 2014’s Selma ’65 about a white female civil rights activist and a male Ku Klux Klan informant for the FBI.

Her newest creation, Kidnap Road will be presented as a reading in the Human Rights Art Festival at Dixon Place on March 5, 2017 and in a full production April 27 through May 14, 2017 at La MaMa. It is a story of global and personal politics, professional aspirations of women, family legacy, kidnapping as power and cultural turmoil.

Ingrid Betancourt, the focus of this newest play, was an established Colombian politician when she was kidnapped by FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia) in 2002 and held for six years. Betancourt followed her politician mother into Colombian political life after spending her childhood and young adulthood in France with her diplomat father. Twice a senator, leader of anti-corruption campaigns, and a leader taking on the Cali drug cartel, Betancourt was kidnapped while running for Colombian president.

Playwright and activist Catherine Filloux. Photo: artist web site.
Playwright and activist Catherine Filloux. Photo: artist web site.

Filloux reflected in our recent conversation on Betancourt’s role and contemporary responses to her. “She’s a controversial figure. As with other women leaders, there was a lot of backlash against her, a polarizing kind of quality. People loved her, hated her, said it was her fault that she got kidnapped. That kind of narrative.”

And as with all Filloux’s political theater, this play is more than a bioplay, filtering the themes of Betancourt’s life through post-traumatic stress. “It’s an exploration of scenes and a story of a woman who is forced to survive against massive odds,” the writer recalled. “I’ve written a lot about post-traumatic stress disorder, and one of the symptoms of PTSD is intrusive memory. The linearity of time has dissolved and the past, the present, and the future can just mix around.”

Organizer Tom Block invited Filloux to participate in the Human Rights Art Festival. The two met at the 2010 Amnesty International Festival in DC. Filloux and director Elena Araoz plan to present several sections of this new play and themes such as backlash against women leaders and PTSD in the Sunday March 5 Dixon Place reading with the play’s two actors Kimber Riddle (who was the attorney protagonist of Luz in 2012) and Marco Antonio Rodriguez (who came into the project with the director Araoz).

The Festival reading folds into her typical development process of community and audience outreach. “I like to develop audiences before the premiere,” Filloux noted, and has already held similar conversations with New York City area groups, including a senior center and a high school in the Bronx. While project development is one goal for Filloux, she’s also focused on sharing the theatrical experience. “One of my goals is to reach out to audiences that don’t generally have a chance to go to the theater.”

“I have a kind of triage system,” she described, “of trying to see how a play is developing and what I need to change. I feel generally after a play has its premiere that it’s finished. It’s really the culmination of a lot of work and development.”

Design is woven into the poetry of her work. In Luz in 2012, I thrilled to designer Maruti Evans‘ set that was overwhelmed by piles of papers tied to the paperwork of legal processes, an intellectual metaphor punctuated by the physical sour smell of moldering old paper. The production design team for Kidnap Road promises another example of political poetry in a dramatic frame. Filloux revealed that a box as a cage will feature prominently.

Filloux has crafted situations and interactions and dialogue inspired by history and biography of another powerful woman. This international, activist woman of the theater is drawn to stories of activist political lives. And we are the beneficiaries.

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