Arts and Entertainment your connection to The Boston Globe

Mournful 'Keening' cries out for justice in Colombia

''Keening is becoming an international growth industry," says Colombian director and actor Nicolas Montero, deadpan. As wisecracks go, this seems as sincere as it is sardonic.

Montero is in Cambridge this month, directing the English language premiere of Humberto Dorado's ''The Keening" at the American Repertory Theatre. A one-woman drama that made its Colombian debut as ''Con El Corazon Abierto" (''With a Heart Wide Open") in 2003, it tells a superficially straightforward story of a planidera (a hired mourner, or keener), whose close encounters with death turn her from tradeswoman to truth-teller.

Keening, a weeping and wailing lament for the dead, is a time-honored ritual among cultures throughout the world. ''It wasn't common practice in Colombia, except in a few pockets near the Caribbean," says Montero.

Recently, the demand for planideras has grown, Montero adds grimly.

Death comes early and often in regions such as northern Colombia, where ''The Keening" unfolds. Small villages and the local countryside close to the country's international borders are controlled by virulent combatants in an ongoing, 40-year struggle between left-wing guerrillas and right-wing paramilitaries. These increasingly bloody battles for national control have been aided and abetted by factions of the national armed forces, according to human rights groups.

Citizen warriors on both sides are funded by Colombia's illegal drug export profits, according to the watchdog organizations. Left- and right-wing ''leaders" share responsibililty for tens of thousands of violent deaths and the massacres of hundreds of civilians in recent years, they say.

Normal people dying in crossfire is commonplace in the global village, Montero continues.

''It happens in Colombia, in Iraq, and New Orleans. Violence and chaos are inevitable during war -- and in any situation where people resort to killing in order to get food."

The director conceived and developed ''Con El Corazon Abierto" with prominent Colombian stage and screen actress Vicky Hernandez who has costarred with screenwriter Dorado in his award-winning films ''Details of a Duel" and ''Golpe de Estadio."

The threesome were working on a play based on the life of planidera in early 2001, when they learned of a right-wing paramilitary massacre, weeks earlier in Chengue, a village in northern Colombia. According to the Washington Post, 26 men and boys were pulled out of homes in a village of avocado farmers. Twenty-four were slain in the village square, one by one, their heads crushed with heavy stones and a sledgehammer, the Post reported.

The collaborators debated for two weeks whether to tell the Chengue story, says Montero. The massacre at Chengue is now the climax of ''The Keening," which opened Friday at the ART's Zero Arrow Theatre. In the play, the village is called Aguacatal. It's a small town with brightly painted houses where the planidera, a widow, raises her two young sons.

The names of the victims of the Chengue massacre are memorialized when the planidera tells the final chapter of her story, which is the climax of the play. ''She never asks questions," says Marissa Chibas, a Los Angeles actress who plays her in the ART production. ''All along, while she tells her story, she realizes that by not asking questions she is being complicit in all the death and dying."

Today (free)
Yesterday (free)
Past 30 days
Last 12 months
 Advanced search / Historic Archives