On March 12, 2020, I went to an afternoon movie. I was struck by the heavy feeling in Midtown; people looked less determined, more afraid. There were interminable lines inside the drugstores, and at the IMAX theater that seats more than 4,000 people, there was me and a stranger who walked in during the previews.
I was killing some time before an evening show off-Broadway. I still had to do my job, as a critic, and had the delusional hope that New York City would somehow be spared the arrival of the virus. Halfway through “Onward,” my Apple Watch vibrated, and I read the announcement that Broadway had been shut down. I abandoned the movie, bought enough cough syrup and chips to last me a century, and didn’t leave my Brooklyn apartment once for the next six weeks.
I still don’t know how “Onward” ends.
Two thousand miles south of New York, in my hometown, Tegucigalpa, Honduras, the reality of the pandemic also materialized for members of the Casa del Teatro Memorias. The local theater company had opened its doors in 2013 to satiate culture-hungry audience members living in a city where, because of crime, you’re told not to leave the house after dark.
That evening they were celebrating the opening night of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” their most ambitious production yet. With the sudden announcement of a lockdown, the festivities turned funereal.
“We were in mourning for weeks,” the actor Gabriel Ochoa, who played Puck, told me recently. His impish smile turned into a frown as he showed me two photographs that were salvaged from that single night, all that remained of their dream production.
My visit with Ochoa, however, was tinged with optimism. We met at a rehearsal for the theater’s next production, the second to be staged in person since the company had resumed activities in March.
The theater where, amazingly in so many ways, I saw my first live show in 409 days.
Lonely and fearful
During lockdown, I learned how to adjust to digital performances, nonstop Zooms, and loneliness. I’d gone from seeing shows every matinee and evening to coming up with different voices for all the plants I’d bought. My UPS guy, (hello, Jose!) became the most consistent physical presence in my life, my quarantine BFF.
When the loneliness became absolutely unbearable, I realized I needed to return home. I hadn’t seen my parents in nine years, my younger brothers had outgrown me in height, I’d never met my mom’s dogs. I just needed to be cared for.
The pros of returning to the hometown I’d left as a queer teenager, and had been too afraid of visiting as an openly gay adult, outweighed the cons. Life in quarantine wouldn’t be so different, except there I’d be surrounded by the people I love.
After getting my second vaccine in late March I started a process of reverse migration: I’d left my home for survival, and staying alive was bringing me back.
I got used to being back faster than I had imagined. The benefits of digital performance meant I’d been able to carry what I love most about New York with me, and this time I could share it with my family. Laughing with Peter Michael Marino’s “Planet of the Grapes” along with my middle brother was perfection. My 32-year-old baby brother couldn’t believe a show like Darrel Alejandro Holnes’s “Black Feminist Video Game” existed. He never knew theater could cater to gamers.
One evening shortly after my birthday, my mom asked me if I wanted to go to the theater. How did she know what I’d wished for when I blew out my candles?
More important: theater in my hometown?
“A lot has changed since you’ve been gone,” said Inma López, a producer and ensemble member at Memorias. She and her husband, the artistic director Tito Ochoa (Gabriel’s uncle), met in Colombia and moved to his native Tegucigalpa in 2007 where they worked to set up what has become the most vibrant theater in the city capital.
Upon finding a landscape lacking a steady diet of cultural events, they set up shop in the historic Barrio La Plazuela, in a space that had previously housed a gym, an Evangelical church and a dojo.
Steadily, Casa del Teatro Memorias gained traction with diverse groups in the city. Theater in Tegucigalpa went from the didacticism of political plays that toured colleges and high schools in the 1980s, to becoming an essential part of city life. “I never knew this could exist in my hometown,” the actor Jean Navarro explained.
Like many other struggling companies around the world, Memorias became a streaming platform during the pandemic, and in March was able to resume in-person performances. Following strict Covid-19 safety protocols and cutting capacity from 150 to 30 socially distanced seats, the troupe premiered Tito Ochoa’s adaptation of “La Ciudad Oscura,” by the Spanish playwright Antonio Rojano.
The play, inspired by Alex Proyas’s 1998 film “Dark City,” explores collective amnesia in the aftermath of the Franco regime. For the Honduran adaptation, Ochoa had plenty of material to draw from: three coups d’état and military dictatorships since 1963, the most recent in 2009.
Human rights violations at home and the murders of L.G.B.T.Q.I. people led my parents to ask me not to return home after college in Costa Rica, out of fear for my life.
Awestruck and grateful
On April 25, I took a 15-minute walk from my mom’s house to the theater. I strolled past the colonial era churches that had ignited my imagination as a child. Several landmark stores I had loved were gone, replaced by fast food restaurants and parking lots.
But a small line was forming outside the theater. We stood patiently as each of us had our temperatures checked, and our hands doused in sanitizer. Half an hour later the thought-provoking production of “La Ciudad Oscura” began.
I had wondered how I’d react to seeing a curtain open again. I eased into the experience, just as I had with my other homecoming.
I was annoyed at the young people who kept updating their Facebook status, shivered with delight whenever the fog machine was used during a scene transition and grinned like a fool when the curtain closed for intermission. My heart swelled every time my mom turned to me when I laughed. She’s been doing that for as long as I can remember when she knows I’m enjoying something. I didn’t need to see her mouth under her mask to know she was smiling.
The ensemble at Casa del Teatro Memorias held me spellbound for almost three hours. The play’s tonal shifts, from farcical to terrifying, were expertly handled by the troupe, who made us laugh, gasp and squeal in unison. As a lover of classic musicals, I felt like Judy Garland in “Meet Me in St. Louis,” grateful and in awe that such beauty existed in the place where I had grown up.
“It’s a reminder of the resilience of theater,” said Tito Ochoa when I caught up with him a few days later. “It’s an art form incapable of being censured or annihilated. It will always remain a mirror of its time.”
This time it reflected where I was: home.