A Jesuit-founded music and theater troupe in northern Honduras dedicates its 35th season to peace in the violence-scarred Central American nation.
By Cheryl Wittenauer
A Jesuit-founded music and theater troupe in northern Honduras dedicated its 35th season to peace in the violence-scarred Central American nation.
Teatro La Fragua, founded and directed by Jesuit Fr. Jack Warner, marked its 35th anniversary of bringing theater to the people of northern Honduras by sponsoring a two-month long season of theater and music last summer at its base in El Progreso, dedicating it to a “Honduras at peace.” In addition to Teatro’s performance of plays, other theater groups, musicians and dancers were invited to perform so that there was a different production every weekend.
One of Teatro's alumni, Herlyn Espinal, was murdered the first weekend of the season. Espinal worked with Teatro from 2001 to 2005 before becoming a TV news reporter in San Pedro Sula, a city on the coast that is especially dangerous. His unsolved murder joins those of others closely associated with Teatro: a former actor-director murdered in 2006; a former choreographer and ballet instructor, and the husband of Teatro’s bookkeeper, both murdered in 2010; and Teatro’s technical director, murdered in 2012.
“The Temporada (theater season) is a prayer of petition for a Honduras at peace,” Warner wrote in a letter to friends and donors. “But it’s hard to see any hope that the prayer is being answered.
The country where Jesuits from the former Missouri Province have worked since the 1950s has one of the world’s highest homicide rates, according to the U.N. Gang-related violence underlies the flood of Honduran children attempting to find shelter in the United States.
Warner recalled composer/conductor Leonard Bernstein’s thoughts on the role of an artist in the wake of John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963.
“This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before,” Berstein said.
“We hope that Teatro La Fragua is a worthy disciple of Bernstein,” Warner added.
Warner spent his Jesuit scholastic years at St. Louis University High School, and taught freshman- and junior-year English. After leaving SLUH, Warner continued his own studies, earning a Master of Fine Arts in directing from the Goodman School of Drama in Chicago in 1978. He then studied Spanish for a year in Cochabamba, Bolivia, where he came to see the importance of theater in an essentially illiterate culture.
Warner knew he wanted to work somewhere in Latin America, and at the time, the Missouri Province ran the Jesuits’ mission in the Honduran state of Yoro. So, in 1979, the place emerged as the site of his people’s theater company, Teatro La Fragua, or Theater of the Forged, “as in a blacksmith’s forge,” he explained.
“I like the image ... taking ideas and cultural realities and forming them into a shape that can be seen, heard and experienced; the forming of people and forming of ideas, and by doing so, giving people a reflection, an image of who they are and their own reality. Hamlet uses the image of holding a mirror up to nature.”
Warner, who had been around theater since childhood, and whose great aunt was a Broadway producer, said his dream of community theater seemed doable. He launched Teatro with a parish youth group in Olanchito but eventually moved it to El Progreso, the nation’s third-largest city that for years was the commercial center for banana farms. Today, the city is better known for its clothing sweatshops, but a former dance hall of United Fruit Co. serves as Teatro’s performance venue when the troupe isn’t on the road. The hall is about the size of an off-Broadway theater.
Warner directs actors in their late teens and 20s, most of whom joined the theater after participating in acting and staging workshops Teatro offers at parishes and schools. The troupe spends half the year rehearsing and performing strictly scriptural material, dramatizing Gospel stories for the Christmas and Easter seasons. The other half of the year, they work on secular material with a social message such as Grimms’ Fairy Tales or popular folk stories from Europe and Latin America.
Teatro la Fragua has toured Central America, Mexico, Colombia, Spain and the U.S., and was the subject of a PBS documentary in 1989. The theater’s mission is to stimulate the creativity needed for problem-solving, and to enable Hondurans to show themselves and the world their culture’s worth, beauty and power even as globalization ranks some as inferior. Warner’s work echoes a Jesuit tradition of working with people on the margins of society.
“It’s not a political message as such, but a cultural message,” Warner said. “People need the mirror. They need something to reflect back who they are and what they are doing” as an antidote to a bombardment of images from the outside. “Shakespeare did that. Goethe did it in Germany. Cervantes did it in Spain, and we’re trying to do it for Hondurans.”
Warner is trying to develop a paying audience in El Progreso to support Teatro in the future beyond the contributions of U.S. benefactors whose support is critical. From the beginning, the Jesuit director has been sending out printed newsletters to beg for support. The letters go to family, friends, even former students like Dr. Jim Ebel, a successful internist in suburban St. Louis.
Ebel said that 20 years ago, “Jack (Warner) out of the blue started sending Teatro La Fragua letters, saying ‘I’m here. This is what I’m doing,’ in an attempt to raise money.
“I thought, ‘this man is an idiot,’” Ebel said.
Ebel, 57, a self-described Type A, obsessive-compulsive workaholic, couldn’t understand why anyone would give up a comfortable life in the U.S. to run a theater troupe in Honduras for 30-plus years.
Besides, he thought, wouldn’t a nation with nearly 65 percent of its people in poverty be served better by sanitation and water-quality improvements, new housing construction or medical care?
“I’m a concrete-thinking kind of guy,” Ebel said. “Get these people basic sanitation. That’s the doctor part of me.”
Then he saw the troupe perform in St. Louis and something clicked. Ebel said the 68-year-old Jesuit was giving Hondurans, in his words, “hope and social justice,” and had struck on an innovative means of evangelization, a perhaps less tangible but equally powerful gift that is worth supporting financially.
“I think the guy is crazy, but crazy can be genius,” he said.
Ebel and his wife, Jane Ebel, an art teacher for a Catholic school in St. Louis that serves Spanish-speaking children from throughout the Americas, have given tens of thousands of dollars to Teatro La Fragua, among other charities. They include the W. Peoria, Ill.-based group, Haitian Hearts, which sponsors medical trips to the U.S. for Haitian children in need of heart surgery. The Ebels have hosted half a dozen children. They even adopted one.
Ebel said he started sending checks to Teatro La Fragua for $100 or $200 about 12 years ago, but when his income suddenly grew, he offered $10,000 if Warner would quit smoking. After some failed attempts, Warner succeeded.
Warner doesn’t know why a man he taught in high school English class 40 years ago, who once was skeptical of his ministry, has become a substantial donor.
“I’m not really sure,” he said. “Maybe he sees it as serious and important work, and work that he couldn’t do. I think the presence of Jane had something to do with it.”
Jane Ebel, 60, has traveled to Honduras for 10 years to teach English and arts and crafts through a network of volunteers unrelated to Warner and his ministry. Her introduction was through a friend who had been invited to help in the wake of Hurricane Mitch in 1998.
Jim Ebel has never been to Honduras, and until very recently, had no desire to travel there, knowing that serving in a medical capacity would be physically and emotionally exhausting. Jane Ebel said he listens with a look of surprise when she describes living conditions there. But the driven, energy-charged doctor, who struggles with spontaneity, recently said the idea of hanging out in Honduras for a while is appealing. He said it never occurred to him that he could go as a sightseer, and take a walk on the beach, or just spend time and have a beer with his old teacher.
Warner has no plans to retire but would like to turn over the project to Hondurans and serve as its consultant. He’s working on securing an endowment that would ensure Teatro’s financial future. Teatro is funded by private donors and international organizations (40 percent each) as well as by ticket sales and earned income (20 percent).
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