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Quique Avilés is not one to mince words. As MC and director of this week’s “Occupy GALA” at GALA Hispanic Theatre, he makes it clear the event has no direct affiliation with the Occupy movement. “They put it out there, you know, that they have no leadership,” he says. “So we kind of appropriated it for this event… but this is more artistic. And it’s a great excuse for a lot of us to see each other.” The two-day event, which begins tomorrow, looks to the social movement as a sort of thread connecting individual performances of monologues, poetry, and music.
Avilés will MC Occupy GALA in the character of Don Amadeo Martinez, a character he wrote and performed as for his own show El Canuto del Roc in 2009. Sitting in GALA’s lobby, he regales me with the life story of this elderly Salvadoran peasant DJ, moving in and out of his character’s accent and cadence. After losing three fingers in a machete fight, and with them his dreams of playing guitar, Don Ama becomes the first DJ to broadcast rock ‘n’ roll to the countryside of El Salvador. In order to reprise Don Ama for Occupy GALA, Aviles has updated his story. He’s become famous, traveled the world, and gained a social consciousness.
GALA added “Occupy GALA” to its season earlier this year, when it postponed one of its season’s plays because of a funding shortfall. “I just said in passing to Rebecca [Medrano], our executive director, ‘Hey can I have a couple of nights?'” explains Avilés. “‘How about Occupy GALA?’ And this was when the occupying thing was still kind of vibrant.” When Medrano came back saying the board loved his idea, he thought, “Oh OK, so now I guess I better do something,'” he says.
What Avilés came up with is a show that will feature two hours of bilingual performances of music and poetry in the auditorium as well as painting, photography, and political banners throughout the lobby, conga drumming and puppetry on the sidewalks near Tivoli Square, and a band playing the rooftop of the Giant parking garage. “The whole idea behind this comes from all of the stuff that’s been happening over the last few years,” Avilés says. “The economic collapse…and then you have things like Arab Spring, you know. Finally the Arab world revolts and things are shifted and tilted. We kind of went through that in the 60’s and the ’70s in Latin America when we got rid of our dictators…there’s some kind of comparison to be made there.”
As a performer and community activist who emigrated from El Salvador over thirty years ago, Avilés also wants “Occupy GALA” to make a point that will hit close to home. “I grew up right around here so I’ve seen the change. This was all black,” he says, gesturing to indicate the neighborhood surrounding GALA Theatre (which also happens to be where I live). “To see a white person here in the ’80s? You were either demented, or looking for some weed.”
I ask him whether the change has been for the better, the worse, or a bit of both. “Both,” he says, “both. The thing is the working class people are the people who actually made this neighborhood multicultural, you know, mixed. Through a lot of hard work. Through a lot of violence, as well. We went at each other like hell, you know. We fought for a while, blacks and Latinos…But then things calm down. We started getting to know each other, we started having children together….Now it’s a completely different time.”
“For me,” he continues, “the question is how do we begin to be frank with one another and look for ways to pool all those assets that we have?…The truth of the matter is that we’re stuck together. How is it that we begin to look for ways to connect, because that’s, that’s not really happening. And I think we all mean well. For those of us that D.C. is a home, is a place where we’ve struggled and done stuff, the question has to be brought to the table. [Occupy GALA] is part of that. Trying to showcase what D.C. really has to offer in terms of people who have been living here for quite a while, as artists.”
“Occupy GALA” takes place Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. at GALA Hispanic Theatre. Each night is $15.