Last night at the La Muerte Baila performance at the Milagro Theatre in southeast Portland, I wrote down the name of a friend who passed away two years ago. The performance marked Dia de los Muertos, the Mexican holiday honoring and celebrating the dead, and everyone in attendance was invited to do this after the show. I clipped the small piece of paper to a line hanging outside the stage entrance as directed. A little girl followed suit with her mother behind her, each hanging a name. My companion for the night did the same.
La Muerte Baila engages the audience in similar ways during the show. We are asked to say the names of people that have passed; we are asked about what we love about life, what we’d miss. Opening the show, La Muerte, death, portrayed by Sofia May-Cuxim, asks us if we love or hate our jobs after interrupting herself in a poetic and melodramatic monologue on death to cry out, “I hate my job! No one ever wants to see me,” thereby deflating the first impression that the play would ruminate in morbid, lofty tones about the meaning of death. May-Cuxim is our host for this party, boisterous and charismatic, and couldn’t disguise well as a grim-reaper sort. Approached by her, death could appear like giving into nurturing arms, albeit reckless and brash, rather than an eternal darkness.
Death is a lonely occupation for her but the play is populated with the commotion and activity of the upbeat, quirky cast, all of whom are deceased. We spend the two hours of the play in the afterlife, observing memory, and empathizing with the dead. We spend it remembering life, as they look forward to the one day of the year when they get to go back to the land of the living to be among what they loved about life. For one character, it is “the sun on my face,” for another it is her dogs, for others it is tequila or coffee. They speak in Spanish as well as English, and although I am able to translate the Spanish, it is not hard to follow along.
The land of the dead is filled with music, dancing, comedy and flirtation. Don Carlos (Enrique E. Andrade) loves Dona Emilia (Patricia Alvitez) — he loved her in life and death has done nothing to quell his desirous leering and cheeky come-ons. The cast dances with the music of Susan Jacobo and Sherman Floyd, who perform the traditional string instruments of son jarocho folk music. Taking the dimension of a musical, the play is that much livelier and fun. Jacobo’s voice is both operatic and delicate, but there was something about her eyes encircled in darkly painted shadows, like everyone else’s, that gave the music the somber beauty of a rainy day.
The story of Alejandro begins to give the plot shape. Freshly deceased and newest to the afterlife, Alejandro can’t think of anything he misses about life and thereby blocks the path for the rest of the crew to revisit life for the holiday. La Muerte and the rest of the cast try to revive in him the memories of his family, of the joy and encounters in his life. He struggles because of the unresolved pain. Death is only one thing in life that separates us from those we love. Even before we leave this earth, we part from each other in life. We forget one another, we exchange fighting words until silence stretches the space between us.
I became hung up on La Muerte’s emphasis of memory as the connection between the land of the living and the dead. It reminded me of the conversation on THRU’s Horizon at End Times podcast released yesterday, which explored time travel and memory. It was about the capacity for our memories to act as a conduit for time travel, and that the present moment involves time travel through memory. Remembering the dead, we bring them back and we visit them in the future. How thinking back on the sensations of memory, experiencing them again — the sound of a voice, the smell of soup — how it allows us to travel, how it allows the transport of the spirit.
Celebrating Dia de Los Muertos, La Muerte Baila encourages us to remember the dead, to make it a sacred passage in life, separate from the ritual of mourning. I realized when I wrote my friend’s name, when I released her face from the private space in my memory to hang with the others in the bubblegum-pink hue of the theatre lobby, I hadn’t ever thought of her, the whole of her before, for the simple sake of remembrance, without a triggered sadness causing me to do so. For how festive and fun the show was, a perfect thing to do on Halloween weekend with members of the audience and cast alike masked in face paint, it was touching, providing a keepsake of a message.
Honor the dead, even long after the pangs of sadness go away, with the sounds and colors of life, and do that with the people you love who are still here, because you’re doing that for them, not for yourself.