Magical realist work by Carmen Aguirre celebrates Latinx culture and marks the theatrical debut of Juno Award-winning hip hop artist Shad.
Magical realist work by Carmen Aguirre celebrates Latinx culture and marks the theatrical debut of Juno Award-winning hip hop artist Shad.

Among the six world premieres at this year’s PuSh International Performing Arts Festival, currently underway in Vancouver, is Carmen Aguirre’s Anywhere But Here, a darkly comic exploration of the states of exile and borderlessness.

Produced by the Electric Theatre Company in association with Playwrights Theatre Centre, the play chronicles the travels of a refugee family in 1979 from Canada to Chile in a bid to return to the country from where they were initially expelled. Combining elements of magical realism and dark comedy, Anywhere But Here also features music from Juno Award-winning hip hop artist rapper Shad Kabango.

"Anywhere But Here humanizes those being made to flee their homes and celebrates the nuanced layers of Latinx culture." - playwright Carmen Aguirre. Photo by Emily Cooper.
“Anywhere But Here humanizes those being made to flee their homes and celebrates the nuanced layers of Latinx culture.” – playwright Carmen Aguirre. Photo by Emily Cooper.

Anywhere But Here marks the first time in Canadian history that a Latinx work of this size makes its world premiere on a major stage,” says Aguirre of her play in a media release. “We are in the midst of the biggest refugee crisis the world has faced, with millions of people living in a state of displacement and exile. Behind the statistics and news media are real stories of individual and collective resilience that need to be shared.”

Going onto say it was important that the participating artists reflected this reality, director Juliette Carrillo has assembled a cast of nine actors of colour from across Canada. Among them are Michelle Rios and Augusto Bitter, who spoke with Vancouver Presents about the play, their roles, and their connections to the story.

This interview has been edited.

Tell us about Anywhere But Here and the roles you play.

Michelle Rios: I am in the acting ensemble of the World Premiere of Anywhere But Here, playing the roles of Juana Anzurduy de Padilla and Virgen Carmen. I am thrilled to be part of this ensemble piece and celebrate the fact that this play is written by a woman of colour, directed by a woman of colour, and musically directed by a woman of colour.

Augusto Bitter: I’m an actor in the ensemble. I play ghosts and apparitions and memories, ageless, genderless ancestors. I’ve been a part of the project since the July 2019 workshop. It’s a very fun gig, to say the least.

The press material describes you as having a direct connection to immigration as first- or second-generation immigrants to Canada. Does the script also contain parts of your story in it? Is the cast contributing to the overall story?

"I believe that Anywhere but Here will definitely take audiences on a transformative journey that will not only entertain, but also educate and provoke." - Michelle Rios
“I believe that Anywhere but Here will definitely take audiences on a transformative journey that will not only entertain, but also educate and provoke.” – Michelle Rios

Michelle Rios: I immigrated to Canada from the U.S. in 2009.  However, I was born in Puerto Rico. And although I am also a U.S. citizen due to being born in Puerto Rico, my parents, grandmothers, aunts, and other family members moved to New York from Puerto Rico during the 1940s and 1950s.  Their stories of displacement and hardship are very similar to the stories that many Latinx immigrants experience today. The script explores certain emotional connections to these experiences that most of us still face.  Each cast member viscerally understands these hardships because most of us have heard the stories of our ancestors. Many of us have also witnessed and experienced hardships. Thus, we carry those stories with us.

Augusto Bitter: My family immigrated from Venezuela to Fort McMurray, Alberta, 15 years ago. My own psycho-spiritual-physical-emotional exile baggage, although very different from the script’s, is ever-present. The duality and the feeling of being pulled across the Americas and the yearning for ancestral connection while functioning on a different land is very close to my heart. There have been many moments in rehearsal when we’ve paused and shared our experiences that relate to the scene at hand. It’s a familiar dance that is both healing and destabilizing. Understanding the collective importance of this project has definitely helped us bond and trust and play with each other as an ensemble.

I can only imagine the experiences of refugees and immigrants are harrowing, are there moments of hope, light or imagination as well?

"This play bends space and time and logic in delightful and magical ways, challenging us to think about borders and our relationships to them in new ways." - Augusto Bitter
“This play bends space and time and logic in delightful and magical ways, challenging us to think about borders and our relationships to them in new ways.” – Augusto Bitter

Michelle Rios: As Latinx individuals, we often find light and humour in moments of great despair.  Therefore, you will experience quite a bit of humour and hope infused in the narrative. Moments of laughter through tears. In addition, magic realism, which is primarily a Latin American narrative strategy, is very much part of the character’s journey.  Many messages of hope are woven into the narrative.

Augusto Bitter: There are. Music is a huge part of the nostalgia, but also of finding pleasure in the journey. You can feel the joy and the pleasure in the songs and sounds Carmen has sprinkled throughout her story.

Why should someone see Anywhere But Here?

Michelle Rios: Theatre is about the human condition. It is also a medium that often explores what is currently happening in our world. Therefore, audiences should see this play to experience the truth and beauty of Carmen’s poetic narrative. I believe that AnywhereBut Here will definitely take audiences on a transformative journey that will not only entertain, but also educate and provoke. Canadian theatre needs to diversify a bit more.  We need to transform the theatrical narrative and include voices that often remain invisible and unheard. Exposure is everything. That’s how we build a better world.

Augusto Bitter: I think many Canadian and English-speaking theatre audiences expect to see themselves reflected quite literally on stage. This play bends space and time and logic in delightful and magical ways, challenging us to think about borders and our relationships to them in new ways. It is incredibly timely considering the ongoing vileness at the U.S.-Mexico border and in many of the countries represented in the creative team that is still recuperating from ongoing colonization in all its forms. It’s very important that we consciously experience these issues from a Latinx perspective as well. It complicates the conversations in a very necessary way.

Anywhere But Here opens at the Vancouver Playhouse (600 Hamilton St, Vancouver) on February 8 and continues through February 15. Visit pushfestival.ca for tickets and information.