The Mythic Voyage Resurfaces in Lina Prosa’s The Trilogy of the Shipwrecked
Sicilian playwright Lina Prosa and journalist Anna Barbera visited Pittsburgh in March for the American debut of Prosa’s stunning play, Lampedusa Beach, the first in The Trilogy of the Shipwrecked. The play tells the story of Shauba, one of the more than 360 refugees who drowned when their small fishing boat sank off the coast of Lampedusa Island in 2013. A young girl sent by her family to Europe in the hopes of a better life, Shauba becomes an epic heroine, even as she drowns. Prosa and Barbera talked with Sampsonia Way about their work directing Teatro Studie Attrice/Non, the transformative power of theater, and why Shauba’s story is more important than ever.
You are visiting us from Italy, where you head an organization called Teatro Studio Attrice, which I believe translates to “Non-Theatrical search space.” Can you tell us about this space and the work that is done there?
Lina Prosa: The Teatro Attrice/Non group is part of the Progetto Amazzone (“Amazon Project”), which was born in Palermo in 1996 and conceived and directed by Anna Barbera and me. The project combines myth, science, and theater. Its objective is to create a new vision of illness, in particular breast cancer. We’ve chosen this central idea for personal reasons and experiences. Most of all, given our involvement with the theater and our relationship to the body in a creative mode, which is far from commonplace, we became aware of how an experience—an extreme experience, an experience of rupture such as an illness—can be an important way to undertake new paths that bring you to a new understanding of your humanity. In other words you can discover your identity in the moment of this grave illness.
Other illnesses also permit the same kind of journey. It’s just that cancer is very much related to transformation because the cure—especially the cure—changes you physically. Because cancer is an illness whose origins are still unknown, it puts you in a relationship with mystery, and therefore with death, with the fear of dying. These two situations—the nearing of death and the transformation of the body—are two extraordinary aspects of transformation that we’ve rendered positive, transformed in important moments so that we may understand the hidden side of our existence and establish a completely new approach to the sick body, and also to the healthy body. For us, for the Amazon Project, there’s no line between sick and healthy. Everything depends on our point of view, on how we look at things, on how we interpret events. And so in this project, theater, myth, and science have responded to our needs and we’ve put them in dialogue with each other, combining humanistic and scientific modes of knowledge.
Let me explain this multidisciplinary journey: myth, science, theater. Why myth? Myth is very important because it allows you to return to the memory of your origins. You can only experience this memory if you take a mythical journey inside yourself, an extraordinary journey such as those of the mythical figures of Greek tragedy, those of Medea, Antigone, Cassandra, and others. Myth takes you back. This is no longer a religious, but rather a secular, ritual journey that puts you in touch with your culture, your civilization, your roots. We have taken the Amazon as a figure that exemplifies myth because it’s a warrior figure, a figure of change, and something we recognize, even today, as powerful, strong, extraordinary. But we, as Project Amazon, have also modified our vision of this myth because often the Amazon is seen as a bit masculine. For us, instead, the Amazon is a courageous woman, a courageous warrior, who used her own body to change her destiny. She cut a part of her own body, and therefore used her body, which is the only weapon that we women have to construct or change our destiny. In this gesture we have always seen that utopian vision that we pursue.
The theater gives you the necessary tools to discover this utopian aspect of the body. The theater gives you that language, which in reality we don’t have, to look at another scene of life, to look at things differently. Science is also involved because in the realm of healing, there’s also a relationship to medicine, and therefore to the figure of the healer.
Today theater still has its ancient function, which is to give you the language necessary to talk about things that don’t belong to the day-to-day, to the obvious.
On this journey of reflection, we’ve founded the Amazon Center, which is a center that puts this reflection, this blueprint, in practice. Within the context of the Amazon Center, we’ve called this theatrical space of experimentation Teatro Studio Attrice/Non (Theater Studio Actress/Not), because the women who work with us and participate in the theatrical workshop might be professionals or not. The Attrice/Non (Actress/Not) negates professionalism completely.
So in the same way that there’s no difference between healthy and ill, in the workshop there are professionals and amateurs, young and old, sometimes even doctors—and it’s dedicated to women.
Anna Barbera: To clarify, the amateurs are also patients, who participate because they’re ill. That which society divides does not exist in the theatrical workshop. We’re all healthy, we’re all ill, at the same time. Even if the theater has an incredibly important function for us, it should not be understood as a therapeutic role. It’s always a theater of creation, an artistic theater, because it puts together so many aspects of humanity, but always with the goal of an artistic journey. In other words, a common journey with the goal of a theatrical project or production.
One key tenet of the Amazon Project is that healing is a process that can last a lifetime and that healing is not tied to a pill, but that you carry with you the story of your difference, of your problems, and of your illness. We don’t work on healing per se, but rather healing as a font of motivation and energy.
Can you talk about the significance of the title of your play, Lampedusa Beach, and the significance of the island in regards to the story of the people who died there?
Prosa: The title, Lampedusa Beach, is slightly ironic, because the word “beach” evokes for us Westerners an island, the vision of a vacation spot, a sunny place for tourists. Shauba—that’s the name of the woman who drowns at Lampedusa—carries with her this myth of the European “beach,” a Europe that’s welcoming, happy, and sunny. So it’s a contradictory title, in the sense that it’s the negation of what Shauba and the other migrants find in Europe. Lampedusa is in the title because it’s the island that in these last twenty years has seen the largest number of migrants, of illegal landings, and most of all, of deaths at sea. So for me Lampedusa, the name of this island, has become the name of a place—imaginary, mythical—that transports you immediately to a phenomenon and an event that involves all of us: immigration.
Lampedusa Beach is the first of the three one act plays in the trilogy. Can you talk a bit about what goes on in the next two and what follows?
Prosa: To start with Lampedusa Beach: I say that in Lampedusa Beach there’s a drowning, a vertical sinking, because Shauba goes down to the abyss of the sea. There she makes a gesture of reversal with respect to the reality of death where she finds herself. She believes that she’s found Lampedusa Beach there, on the bottom, while the bottom of the sea is for us on the surface of the stage. She turns the coordinates of truth and reality upside-down. Shauba goes down, vertically.
Lampedusa Snow, the second play in the trilogy, for me, is also about a vertical “drowning,” but a rising one. This draws on a real event. Why “Lampedusa Snow”? It might seem paradoxical, and it is, actually. Three or four years ago, a hundred Africans, left without a place to stay because the refugee center at Lampedusa was full, were taken to the Alps, to a height of 1,800 meters, and left there in the middle of the snow. No one ever heard from them again. I read about this in the papers and was really struck by it. This was the ultimate tragedy – placing Africans in an environment completely hostile to them. These two colors also had an immediate impact on me: the meeting, the contrast between the two colors, the white of the snow and the black of the African. In fact, Lampedusa Snow is the only text in which I require a black actor, while in Lampedusa Beach I requested a white actress.
Finally, Lampedusa Way is a horizontal shipwreck, because it’s really an existential one. It’s the situation of someone who doesn’t know where to go – if they should go left or right. This is where the aunt and uncle of the two young people of Lampedusa Beach and Lampedusa Snow, respectively, have arrived; they’ve come to try and pick up the tracks of their young relatives, with whom they’ve lost contact. They wait and they wait. They’re waiting to talk to the Capitalist, because they think he’s the only one who knows everyone’s destiny, and therefore the only one able to give them information about their whereabouts. This meeting obviously never happens. Their visa—given only for the purpose of finding their loved ones—expires, and they make the existential decision to stay illegally. At this point there’s no turning back and they inch closer to undocumented status. Lampedusa Way is this voyage, this choice, even though within the context of the Trilogy, it’s the conclusion.
Here in the United States, we hear a lot about the mass movement of people from Africa to Europe as refugees. There are a lot of images of refugees that circulate in the media—they are often stereotyped as stupid, helpless, greedy, or potentially dangerous. In imagining these voices, these characters, what did you feel was important to communicate to the audience about them?
Prosa: Shauba’s voice is the voice of our conscience; it’s true that she’s an African migrant, but for me, the Trilogy of the Shipwrecked is a metaphor of the shipwreck of our contemporary situation. So for me, yes, it’s true that I wrote the Trilogy because of the whole unbearable tragedy. I’m Sicilian and it’s all happening there, near me. But I used, if you will, the problem of the migrant to represent and to explain the shipwreck of our contemporary society. The Trilogy is directed at us, at Westerners, and not at migrants, because they’re living their story, their tragedy. For me, the drowning and the raft full of migrants is a mirror of our own shipwreck, because the problem is always our relationship with the Other. It’s always a cultural problem, a really big one at that. The Other is always the mirror of what you are. If you don’t look the other in the eye you’re in the dark. You don’t know who you are. It’s as if you were looking at a wall. However, if you look at the Other, in the eyes of the Other, you look at yourself. You should always take advantage of this. I always say, “Let’s take advantage of this arrival, even if it’s dramatic or tragic, to understand who we are.” Also because—and in the U.S. especially you know this—we are all a mix of races, and we are all in a place that represents the approach of many cultures, many bodies, many ethnicities, and we are all moving around. Movement is the soul of geography, which we all know today, but it’s also true of the story of the planet Earth.
Certainly I feel that the Trilogy is important because it reminds everyone—it doesn’t matter if they’re American or European—it reminds everyone where we’ve come from and where we’re going. Why are we Westerners drowning in this voyage? Because we’ve lost the value of the voyage. We Westerners who are now under the sway of capitalism and consumerism—we’re hostages to this reality that swallows us up but of which we don’t even know the identity. We have lost the mythic sense of the voyage, that we—I, especially, as a Sicilian writer—remember particularly well, and that is the voyage of Ulysses. To lose this memory of Ulysses’ voyage, which is one of discovery, of courage, and the ability to face the storm but also beauty, to give a name and a story to unknown places—this is the important thing. Instead, we Westerners today only travel for tourism or for work. We don’t travel like Ulysses anymore. So as a Mediterranean woman I feel a very strong need to deliver this message, to return to the mythical aspect of the voyage. Only migrants can claim this mythical voyage, because they still face the sea’s risks, the unknown, because they don’t know where they’re going. They don’t know what they’ll find on their journey, new languages, new faces, but they’re spurred on by the necessity of the voyage, that spirit and that necessity that we’ve lost. The Trilogy of the Shipwrecked can speak to anyone who arrives at the four corners of the Earth.
You mentioned that your work is inspired by the heroines of Greek tragedy, such as Antigone and Cassandra. How does Shauba fall into this lineage of heroines?
Prosa: All four of these characters of the Trilogy—Shauba, Mohammed, Saif, Mahama—are mythic because of this important decision: they choose to face a heroic test, even if it brings them to their death. From that decision they are reborn into a mythical dimension that’s no longer death, but rather a new beginning.
Shauba, when she understands that she’s about to die, makes a revolutionary gesture of rebellion: she requests political asylum, because she believes that she’s arrived at Lampedusa Beach. The official asks what kind of sense that makes – to ask for political asylum on the brink of death, and she says, “It’s my right, no matter at what time I ask for it, it’s my right.” In this imaginary dialogue with the lieutenant of the base at Lampedusa Beach, she is dialoguing with the last link in the rescue chain, in the welcoming mechanism tied to migration. By insisting on this asylum request just as she’s dying, she leaves us an incredible message, saying to the lieutenant: “You are you? You’re nothing, you’re a worthless man because all you do night after night is count the migrants that you have there in the welcome center, within the wires, and then every morning check to make sure that no one has escaped. So you’ve never had a human feeling, a refusal of this squalid, easy life of yours.”
In this case we’re the lieutenant, we Westerners. So what does she do next? She invites the lieutenant—us—to make a courageous gesture. What is this courageous gesture? For us to go to Africa, for us to request political asylum in Africa. Because we’re the ones who are lost in today’s world, we’re the ones who need a land that will welcome us and give us value, and render us mythical again. For Shauba this land is her Africa. Mohammed in Lampedusa Snow decides not to wait any longer for anyone to bring him his visitor’s permit and climbs the mountain to seek his freedom and a new path, an escape route from his situation. He then faces great challenges—the blizzard, the hostile environment, the mountain—until at the end, he dies there. But his radical decision transforms him into a hero, too. The same is true with the aunt and uncle in Lampedusa Way, who go to Lampedusa and make the decision not to turn back, to become clandestine. So the Trilogy, through the poetic word, transforms these human beings, these people—because they’re not characters in a theatrical text, but people—transforms them into something extraordinary, into people able to teach us a lesson, to tell us something new and important.