Alexandra Hibbett reviews the play Manta y Vilca against the backdrop of  the concurrent trials addressing rape during Peru’s armed conflict

The play Manta y Vilca,[1] by the Trenzar Cultural Association,[2] ran in Lima from the 12th of April to the 7th of May 2017 at a small cultural centre in the middle-to-upper class neighbourhood of Miraflores. It takes its title and theme from two rural Andean communities that were heavily affected by the political violence of the 1980s and 90s. Specifically, these were places where many women (often children) suffered rape at the hands of members of the Armed Forces, that is to say, at the hands of the very people who had been sent there to protect them from the Shining Path. In 2003, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission produced an in-depth study of the sexual violence perpetrated in these places, and argued that it was used as a method of torture, as well as a way that many soldiers ‘took advantage’ of the upheaval of those times.[3] However, despite this being public knowledge, even today, not a single person has been sentenced for rape during the armed conflict. In July 2016, thanks to nine years of work by a women’s rights NGO,[4] a case was opened in the Peruvian courts against fourteen members of the Armed Forces. The staging of this play was timed to coincide with the first time the victims were to speak in court.[5]

The play was clearly set up to create awareness of the importance of these trials, not only for the particular women affected but as an emblematic step towards justice for all of the victims of rape during the armed conflict, and for sexual violence generally in a country where it is endemic and rarely punished. Played by only two actresses, it sought to do this by representing to its audience the sufferings of two symbolic victims (named ‘Manta’ and ‘Vilca’). Making use of physical theatre, symbolic props, and simple, poetic dialogues, we are told the story of two innocent girls who lose their parents to the violence and are then raped by soldiers. The play was staged in two small rooms without stage or seating, in such a way that we in the audience had to follow the actresses from room to room, and squeeze against the walls to keep out of their way. Most of the duration of the play was dedicated to representing these characters’ suffering, powerfully and skilfully depicted by both actresses. The effect was intentionally claustrophobic: we were forced to watch these characters’ pain, to bear it, to be so close and yet unable to stop it. This sensation was a poignant reversion of Lima’s usual attitude towards the suffering of Andean population: complacency, indifference, ignorance, impunity.

However, I did not find the play really made the most of its political potential, vis à vis the moment and place in which it was produced. The play does well to insist on the basic point (basic, but unfortunately, still necessary in the Peruvian context) that these crimes effectively happened and that the suffering of the victims still demands ‘something’ from us, in the present. But, especially seeing as most of the people who actually went to see this production would have been aware of this already, I found it focused too much upon making its audience feel uncomfortable or guilty (which can lead to a problematic sense of relief or liberation for simply having gotten through it). Although the information on the trial was given in the program and in an additional leaflet, the play itself was almost abstract in its representation of the period in question: save for a few words in Quechua, this could have been two women anywhere, at any time. The simplistic, binary set up between the innocence of the female victim and the apparently inherent evil of the unrepresented male perpetrator may offer the play emotional impact and lyrical intensity, but it also makes it incapable of providing critical awareness as to the particular historical and social causes of this kind of violence, and of its on-going impunity.

In what was perhaps an attempt to bridge this disconnection between the play and its context, the final scene included a recording of a real victim, speaking in the present of how her rape still affects her today. Yet the last-minute nature of this resource, and her somewhat prosaic tone, alongside the sound of cars passing in the background as she spoke, merely had the effect of interrupting the poetic, symbolic atmosphere and emotional tension the play had thus far so carefully created, without adding complexity to its proposal. The play thus remained silent as to how to go about challenging the specific discourses, practices and institutions that need to be challenged in order to truly bring about the social changes that are still necessary in the light of sexual violence during the political violence.

[1] https://www.facebook.com/events/773076009509542/

[2] https://www.facebook.com/TrenzarPeru/

[3] “Violencia sexual en Huancavelica: Las bases militares de Manta y Vilca”. Document. August 2003. Truth Commission Archive.

[4] Estudio para la Defensa de los Derechos de la Mujer (DEMUS).

[5] However, this was postponed due to a request by the lawyer of one of the accused, who alleged not having had enough time to prepare a case. http://larepublica.pe/impresa/politica/866490-suspenden-interrogatorios-sobre-caso-manta-y-vilca

http://www.demus.org.pe/noticias/manta-y-vilca-memoria-performatica-sobre-violencia-sexual-durante-el-conflicto-armado-interno/