Strawdog Theatre Company

A week after the Tiananmen Square massacre, I found myself in New York’s Museum of Modern Art standing next to an American painter of moderate renown. Upset about the Chinese government’s slaughter of pro-democracy students, she told her friend that she was planning a series of collages based on the incident. “I mean, I have to do something,” she said, literally wringing her hands, conveniently oblivious to the fact that her collages would probably end up in rich collectors’ living rooms, netting her more cash after a few weeks’ labor than the average Chinese worker makes in a year.

This artist’s perverse, self-serving conception of political engagement is typical of a certain sector of the American art world, where national or international tragedy spawns little more than black-tie openings and glossy catalogs. How many critics have told us that the “good” thing about AIDS is the artistic renaissance (a particularly cruel term) it’s inspired? If a few hundred thousand U.S. deaths increase the value of a collector’s portfolio, those lives weren’t lost in vain; public policy takes a backseat to protecting one’s investments. Of course, the art world simply mimics the U.S. government, with its nasty habit of throwing financial and military support behind those repressive regimes that assure American businesses access to undeveloped markets. How else could China maintain its most-favored-nation status?

As morally bankrupt as much of the art world may be when it comes to politics, at least the art world often acknowledges that state-sanctioned atrocities happen and that we would do well to look at them. But Chicago playwright Jeffrey Lieber, in his new crisply written drama Mariposa, creates a truly unconscionable art world–and an equally unconscionable play–in which willful ignorance of America’s shameful interventionist abuses in Latin America is the key to unlocking creativity and selling out a show. Unimaginably, Lieber never criticizes this world, instead suggesting that historical amnesia is the key to artistic happiness.

Fresh out of art school Peter was a wildly successful painter, but in recent years he’s suffered a disabling case of artistic block. Now he’s immobilized before the blank canvases in his studio for months on end. He meets Alisa, a Nicaraguan emigre with a sketchbook full of colorful, mesmerizing renditions of her native land. Inspired at last, Peter is visited by the ghost of Augusto Caesar Sandino, the Nicaraguan guerrilla leader who tenaciously and successfully fought U.S. occupation of his country only to be assassinated by Anastasio Somoza’s U.S.-backed National Guard a year after “independence.” Sandino, namesake of the Sandinistas, has mellowed considerably since his death; he enlists Peter as a soldier/painter, giving him a paintbrush as a “weapon,” instilling in him the values of discipline and observation, which he then applies to his canvases.

That an anti-American revolutionary would ever concern himself with an endeavor as relentlessly consumerist as Peter’s artistic career is the first of this play’s many improbabilities. Artistic success is measured here in two ways: commercial sales and press clippings. And in order to achieve that success, Peter is encouraged to overlook the kind of horrors that Sandino dedicated his life to fighting. “Ignore the guns,” Sandino insists as he leads Peter through one of several imaginary tours of Nicaragua, never mentioning that those guns might have U.S. markings. “When you choose sides, the land slips away.” And the land is what Peter has come to paint. How dare those pesky little natives fighting for their lives block his view? In the sequel to Mariposa, perhaps Peter will take his brushes to South Africa, where Nelson Mandela will encourage him to ignore the National Party and paint the exotic stinkwood trees.

Only when Peter forgets history can he produce jungle landscapes that his dealer wants, and only then can the central crisis of the play–Peter’s artistic paralysis–be resolved. The message is clear: it doesn’t matter that the United States has conducted terrorist campaigns in Latin America for the better part of this century, so long as we have pretty pictures to hang above the sofa.

Sandino wants Peter to “unleash his passions,” forgetting just what unleashed American passions did to him and to his country. Peter must make sacrifices for his art, Sandino intones; specifically he must give up a commission in Arizona and travel to Nicaragua to paint instead. Sandino points out that he made sacrifices as well, namely his life, as well as the lives of several thousand countrymen and a few close family members. The comparison is insulting, a facile equation of real tragedy with career trouble. Similarly, Alisa is tormented by memories of mass graves and lynched schoolgirls while Anna, Peter’s painter girlfriend, descends into near schizophrenia because her extraordinary commercial success has been “joyless.” With the tiniest addition of social conscience Lieber could have used these juxtapositions to skewer America’s solipsism and unwillingness to evaluate crises on any terms but its own. Instead, he reinforces our worst national tendencies.

The ultimate horror of Mariposa surfaces in its penultimate scene, when Sandino appears before Alisa (confirming that he’s not simply Peter’s corrupted projection but the true spirit of the historical man). Every time Alisa looks at Peter’s jungle paintings, she’s traumatized by the sounds of gunfire and images of war crimes. Sandino’s solution? Alisa must forget history too. Once she does–with astonishingly little effort–she sees a blissfully sanitized Nicaragua: small, clay-hut villages, an old man hunched over his rusty old car, naked children playing happily in the streets. With this conversion, Alisa’s critical role as eyewitness is neutralized, and the disinformation campaign is complete. Nicaragua is a jungle paradise where American government and military officials have never set foot. At last Alisa can look at Peter’s paintings without anguish. The work of art, even when it’s consciously founded on a massive suppression of knowledge, is what must be saved, despite millions of urgent voices silenced for its sake.

Lieber is a gifted dramatist with a real knack for creating complex relationships in a few deft strokes. Director Amy V. Fenton has put together one hot production, with a sterling cast who drive the play with unrelenting intensity. The folks at Strawdog could make a killing working for the State Department.