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Helios Fernández Garcés

The dawn of Romany dramaturgy in the Spanish state

It is significant that the first contemporary vestiges of open denunciation of antigypsyism produced in the Spanish state arose from the theatrical universe and they did so, moreover, wrapped in the complex socio-cultural and political dress of flamenco art. Contrary to conventional belief, Roma have had a frequent and continuous presence in the Spanish theatre.

Likewise, flamenco, since its definitive emergence during the nineteenth century, was to form an essential part of the identity conflicts and distortions through which Gitanos would be shown and through which Gitanos would, to a large extent, be interpreting themselves.

During the era that illuminates the last remnants and sparks of the dictatorial regime of Francisco Franco, we have the opportunity to consider the appearance of two fundamental flamenco dramaturgical works – Camelamos Naquerar (1976) and Persecución (1979) – that were to change symbolically and forever, each in its own way, the history of the Rroma People and their situation of political fragility at the crossroads of 479 years of systematic oppression by modern Spanish institutions:. We are talking here of works with an eminent social spirit that respond to a Romani historical need, deploying in a cathartic way the real memory of an unjustly oppressed people.

Camelamos Naquerar: the dignified denunciation before the imposed silence

Camelamos Naquerar (‘We Want to Talk’ in Caló, the Spanish Romani ethnolect of the Roma people in Spain, Portugal and southern France) represents a landmark of flamenco theatre in which the thorough, intelligent hybridization of social denunciation, cante (flamenco singing), baile (flamenco dancing) and toque (flamenco playing), between militant historiography and high-quality poetry, turns out to merge into a work that until now has been extremely difficult to position and whose meaning is still open, given the circumstances of the Rroma People in the Iberian peninsula.

José Heredia Maya (1947–2010), a legendary and unique figure, poet, playwright and professor at the University of Granada, developed the revolutionary idea while immersed in intense cultural activity that he shared between the Poetry Department and the Flamenco Studies Seminar. He is remembered today as one of the most important intellectuals of the city of Granada of the second half of the twentieth century.

From the ‘theatre of cruelty’ of Antonin Artaud, through the ‘poor theatre’ of Jerzy Grotowski, from the influence of Bertolt Brecht to that of Erwin Piscator, José Heredia knew how to condense the elements derived from his renewed knowledge of contemporary theatre in Camelamos Naquerar, and gained resounding success through his commendable aesthetic simplicity and semantic elegance, both so difficult to achieve

The show premiered with production by José María Ojeda, script and poetry by José Heredia Maya himself and stage direction by the extraordinary dancer and choreographer Mario Maya Fajardo, and with the voices of Gómez de Jerez and Antonio Cuevas, El Piki, Concha Vargas’ dance and the guitars of Paco Cortés and El Chuscales. It gained traction through an extensive national tour, provoking all kinds of collective reactions.

The progressive press of the time enthusiastically acclaimed that stark cry of dignity, while certain fascist segments, such as the so-called PRD (‘Democratic Racial Party’), harassed the members of the cast and threatened them, trying, for example, to burn one of the theatres in which Camelamos Naquerar was going to be released. The work was not limited to showing the historical reasons why Roma of that territory were in a sort of archaic and persistent internal exile, but it also launched a hopeful and clear message into the face of power: the oppression of Gitanos must cease immediately.

Such was the influence of the show in shaping the nascent Spanish–Romani associative movement of the Spanish state that the last four anti-Romani laws existing in the Civil Guard regulations, denounced in 1978 by deputy Juan de Dios Ramírez-Heredia, were abolished in the heat of the revolutionary impulse that Camelamos Naquerar sowed in the collective consciousness of the moment.

Persecutión: from heart to heart, joy against pain

The idea of bringing the flamenco album Persecución (1978) to the theatre occurred in a particular and unexpected way. Francisco Suárez Montaño (Extremadura, 1948), an acclaimed and illustrious playwright with a long career and national success, who was director of the Classical Theatre Festival of Mérida for three years running, first listened to the album, composed by the poet Félix Grande and played by Juan Peña, ‘El Lebrijano’, during a car trip with his family. As a result of that contact with the work, the playwright was deeply moved by the crude poetic story and by the aesthetic force produced by the terrible anti-Romani pragmatics that cross the endless siege space between the fifteenth and the eighteenth centuries.

Francisco Suárez, as part of his extensive and cultured work, had dedicated to his people a heartfelt theatrical trilogy, starting with Persecución (1978) and followed by Romancero Gitano (2005) and Ithaca (2006). He decided to begin a determined tour in search of the appropriate support, thus becoming the spiritual ambassador of the longing to transform Persecutión into a theatrical musical spectacle; using it – as José Luis Ortiz Nuevo, the writer and flamenco expert, would say in a review written after the premiere of the play in the Lope de Vega Theatre in Seville, Spain – to convert pain into joy.

For 15 days in a row, the Sevillian Lope de Vega Theatre wept, moved and vibrated viscerally to Persecución, which moved Gitanos and non-Gitanos, showing a historical reality that had been unknown to many, and which consciously lit a vital alternative to contempt, marginalization and servitude: the rebel Roma joy. After a tour taking in much of Andalusia and ending in Badajoz, Extremadura, the voices of Juan Peña Fernández ‘El Lebrijano’, Romerito de Jerez and Chiquetete, the dance of Farruco, Farruca, Pilar Montoya, Angelita Vargas, Joselito El Biencansao, Juan Carrasco and Pilar Gómez, the unrivalled guitar-playing of Enrique de Melchor, Pedro Bacán, Ramón Amador and Carlos Heredia, and the actors Ana Galván, Juan Carlos Ramos, Joaquín Foncueva and Manuel Alcántara, Francisco Suárez Montaño Gained standing ovation after standing ovation from the public.

Unlike Camelamos Naquerar, however, the theatrical performance of Persecución did not pretend to denounce anything; it only exposed an undeniable reality tinged with blood and offered an emotional outlet consistent with the traditional Romani resilience to unjustly caused historical suffering.