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Grandmotherly Flory Jagoda sits quietly at the center of a group of earnest proselytizers as Voces del Exilio II: Nuestra Herencia Judia/Voices of Exile II: Our Jewish Voice gets under way at Gala Hispanic Theater. “Memories are receding,” say her younger compatriots, a notion that’s illustrated a tad too literally by having a figure in Renaissance finery back slowly out of a spotlight as they recite. The evening will be devoted to the poetry of displacement—writings arising from or inspired by Spain’s banishment of Sephardic Jews in the year Columbus sailed, and their exodus to Latin America after subsequent European atrocities. It is poetry of pain and fiery action, and even at this early juncture the company delivers it with a mixture of anger and regret. Everyone, that is, except Jagoda, who remains silently seraphic as the others declaim “The Design of Memory,” Mexican literary critic Perla Schwartz’s ode to the impermanence of recollection.
Jagoda’s gaze is unclouded as they speak of looking back through an ever-foggier lens, her shoulders square, her fine-boned hands folded neatly over her guitar. Then, at a gentle touch on her shoulder, she picks up her instrument and begins to sing in wispy, delicate tones of sons and lovers remembered. Her voice and manner are unpresentational, as if she were in a living room rather than a theater, and her song sounds more Middle Eastern than Hispanic, but abruptly, the plaintive truth of Schwartz’s observations is made flesh. Here is a cultural legacy caught in the very act of fading.
Jagoda is Bosnian. Her songs—some traditional, most contemporary—are penned in Ladino (archaic Spanish written with Hebrew characters) in a Sephardic tradition that has been passed down through generations. Their lyrics conjure sabbath tables laden with bread and fruit, mourning vigils where moonlight is obscured by ash, and even televised images of the destruction of Sarajevo. Unless you speak Spanish, their content will remain obscure, but as with most folk music, it’s the tug of emotions that counts. Her delivery is at once unremarkable and haunting.
Would that something similar might be said for the rest of the evening, which feels nearly as aimless and unfocused as the diaspora it chronicles. Exile II is modeled closely on a similarly titled predecessor mounted a year ago at Gala, but captures little of its flavor, perhaps because it reprises the earlier show’s tricks so slavishly. Exile I was structured as a sort of object lesson in disorientation, with only about half of its poems performed in both Spanish and English. The effect was that monolingual patrons got to taste a bit of the linguistic frustration suffered by authors in exile when differences in tone and impact surfaced as poems were rendered in translation.
Exile II uses the same device, translating only some of the poems (I’d say the English proportion is down to about 25 percent), but this time it proves counterproductive, since the overriding message has to do with shared experience and the singularity of Jewish culture. Stories of circumcision, bar mitzvahs, doting grandmothers, and even the horrors of Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen are surely meant to strike universal chords. But at Gala, English-speaking audiences will simply feel left out much of the time, while bilingual audiences are apt to grow impatient at hearing selected vignettes twice. It helps not at all that company members—apart from Jagoda, who is treated as something of a found object—seem to have been encouraged to confuse volume with passion, or that their voices, when raised in song, are generally less than harmonic.
Compiler/director Abel López includes works by 21 authors, all but four of whom hail from Argentina and Mexico, which is understandable considering emigration patterns in Latin America (outside Israel, Buenos Aires ranks second only to New York City in Jews as a percentage of the population), but makes for a narrower sampling of Hispanic literature than did the previous show. The selections are reasonably diverse, even if they don’t often rise to the ferocious eloquence of Alicia Partnoy’s “…Si, yo no lloro…” (“No, I do not cry, it’s just the tears screaming, escaping from my body”). Passages likening the plights of Holocaust victims and the “disappeared” victims of Latin American military dictatorships are also effective.
Lopez accents such comparisons by reusing the variously sized cloudlike human cutouts that stood in for the disappeared in Exile I. They’re backed by painted sky and augmented by similarly painted portals, which means that every once in a while, the director seems to have a nifty Magritte thing happening. Alas, he rearranges the scenery so incessantly that it quickly becomes a distraction, and a clichéd one at that. If there are to be more sequels in this series—and there’s no reason that, say, gay or African Voices of Exile should be any less instructive than the first two—Gala needs to find new approaches for them. A new visual vocabulary wouldn’t hurt, either.CP