Academic journal article Theatre Research in Canada

Carmen Aguirre's the Refugee Hotel and the Space between Limited and Unlimited Hospitality

Academic journal article Theatre Research in Canada

Carmen Aguirre's the Refugee Hotel and the Space between Limited and Unlimited Hospitality

Article excerpt

ADULT MANUELITA: (walking around the set, contemplating the hotel in half-light) If these walls could talk, they'd tell you a story about the past that informs the present and illuminates the future.

The Refugee Hotel

This essay examines Carmen Aguirre's The Refugee Hotel (premiere Alameda Theatre Company 2009, publication 2010) in the light of Jacques Derrida's reflections on cosmopolitanism and hospitality. Aguirre's play is loosely based on the experience of her family who came to Canada as political refugees when the Pinochet regime seized control in Chile. As such, it is centrally concerned with space and place: with refugees from one nation relocating in another, and with the political, ethical, and psychological tensions inherent in this process for asylum-seekers and those providing refuge. In a single-set space, The Refugee Hotel presents the arrival of eight Chilean political refugees at a Vancouver hotel in 1974, a scant five months after the coup overthrowing Allende, and their initial attempts to find a place in Canadian society. Like Aguirre's parents, the central figures, Flaca and Fat Jorge, arrive with two children: a daughter, who is close in age to Aguirre when she came to Canada and another child, in Aguirre's case a younger sister, but in the play an older brother. (1)

I use both "space" and "place" in describing my focus because I draw on several studies from the "spatial turn" of the past decades, including Una Chaudhuri's Staging Place: The Geography of Modern Drama and Gay McAuley's Space in Performance: Making Meaning in the Theatre. Following Chaudhuri, I use the language of geography to read place within the dramatic text as I examine Aguirre's dramatization of struggles concerning exile, refuge, identity, and assimilation. In McAuley's terms, I focus on the play's thematic space principally via its presentational space (that is, the physical use made of the stage space in a performance) and fictional place (the place or places represented or evoked onstage and off) including the offstage spaces of the city of Vancouver, and the nation-states of Chile and Canada (29). I read both fictional and presentational spaces as these are implied by the play text but wherever possible my conclusions are also based upon the Alameda staging at Toronto's Theatre Passe Muraille. This production, generously documented in a ten-part video, "Making The Refugee Hotelf posted on a blog created by the Alameda Theatre Company, was directed by the playwright herself. Under Aguirre's guidance, the production eloquently evoked the play's symbolism of space on stage.

Expanding McAuley's "unlocalized fictional offstage" (31) to include realms of spatial discourse of the kind mapped by Chaudhuri (for example in her discussion of the figuration of America as heterotopic, 5), I situate Aguirre's Vancouver refugee hotel within the virtual spaces of international debates about cosmopolitics and asylum (articulated with radical clarity by Derrida) and Canadian political discourse of hotel and hospitality, as analyzed by Carrie Dawson in her "Refugee Hotels: The Discourse of Hospitality and the Rise of Immigration Detention in Canada." McAuley's fictional "unlocalized off" includes those places that are part of the dramatic geography of the action but which are not placed in relation to the onstage, the contiguous offstage, or the audience space, for example, Moscow in Three Sisters (31). In Aguirre's play "Canada" is an unlocalized offstage place because although the fictional hotel is located within Canada, the nation as a geopolitical entity is understood to extend far offstage beyond the place of the hotel and its contiguous offstage environs. In fact, the Canadian character of the hotel is unstable; some of Aguirre's thematically interesting play with place occurs as the hotel's status as a location within Canada is made more or less prominent at different moments in the drama.

My central claim is that Aguirre, through dramatic action bound up with the fictive setting and physical set of her refugee hotel, presents conflicts concerning location and belonging whose full significance should be understood as part of larger political and philosophical conversations about the meaning of hospitality and the cosmopolitan ideal of the absolute right of the individual to go anywhere on earth. …

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