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FADO playwright Elaine Ávila takes audiences on an emotional journey through Portugal’s tortured past

Jam Hamidi photo
FADO – The Saddest Music in the World returns to the Firehall Theatre this month. Photo by Jam Hamidi

New Westminster resident Elaine Ávila is thrilled that her hit play about Portuguese fado music will return to the Firehall Theatre this month. She says that’s because the Firehall—under the artistic direction of Donna Spencer—has recorded so many “firsts” through its 40-year history.

When it premiered in Vancouver at the Firehall in 2019, FADO – The Saddest Music in the World made history. It became the first play by someone of Portuguese descent performed on a major stage in Canada or the United States.

“Sometimes, we bring in work from Portugal,” Ávila tells Pancouver over Zoom. “But no Portuguese immigrants have ever had a play of this size on the stage of this size.”

Moreover, Ávila declares that Spencer has opened doors to diverse voices “over and over” (as Pancouver reported last year).

Directed by Mercedes Bátiz-Benét, FADO – The Saddest Music in the World features Sara Marreiros as the ghost of legendary FADO queen Amália Rodrigues. The musical delves into a young woman’s search for identity. In addition, it probes the legacy of fascism under dictator António de Oliveira Salazar, who ruled from 1932 to 1968.

Ávila is a Fulbright scholar and adjunct professor at Douglas College. Her plays have been performed in several countries in English, Portuguese, and Spanish.

Born in Maryland, Ávila grew up in San Jose, California. She says that FADO – The Saddest Music in the World “kind of came out of me” as a result of a visit to her Portuguese grandfather’s home.

Her grandfather, João Henrique Ávila, was a photographer who had immigrated to America from the Portuguese Azores.

“I remember asking my grandfather why I didn’t know any Portuguese songs,” she states.

Derek Ford photo
Photo by Derek Ford.

Grandfather reveals fado past

Her grandfather took her to the living room. He then let her hear hear the music of Rodrigues.

“Then, he told me that he sang before her at the Portuguese Hall,” Ávila recalls. “He sang fado—and I never knew this!”

Moreover, her grandfather had old guitars and dusty photographs from the 1920s and 1930s in his basement.

“I was like, ‘Why didn’t I ever hear him sing? Why didn’t I hear them play?’… I felt that this was lost through the process of immigration,” the playwright adds. “I wanted to reclaim them.”

She describes FADO – The Saddest Music in the World as “half concert, half play”. Since it was first performed in Victoria in 2018, she’s found that many immigrants feel a connection. That’s because it expresses what’s been lost.

“I just wanted to take the audience through a journey,” she says. “It’s almost like a little trip to Lisbon.”

Ávila points out that in the 1950s and 1960s, Portuguese immigrants felt that they needed to assimilate into American life. In addition, she says that many Azoreans feel conflicted about Portugal. The mainland is more than 1,500 kilometres from these islands in the Atlantic Ocean.

To illustrate this point, Ávila cites famous Azorean writer and intellectual Natália Correia, who declared that only in America did she learn that she was European.

“From Portugal, we got laws,” Ávila notes. “But at least from America, we got bread. Sometimes, we would be starving in the middle of the ocean. There’s a desire to want to break off from Portugal.”

Azores by Tyk
The Azores are made up of nine volcanic islands in the North Atlantic Ocean.

Ávila researched Azorean traditions

She was inspired to research the history of fado—and its connections to the history of fascism in Portugal—after working on a theatrical show with an Inuit colleague, Michael Arvaarluk Kusugak.

Prior to being taken away to residential school, Kusugak saved stories about the landscape and ancestry from his grandmother when he was just five years old. According to Ávila some of these stories have lines that are 1,000 years old.

“While I was in that show working on it with him as a dramaturg, which is kind of like an editor, I started wondering about my own ancestry,” she reveals. “So, it’s kind of a decolonial process.”

In 2019, she became a Fulbright Scholar to the Azores, which enabled her to continue researching the islands’ heritage.

Over the years, Ávila has developed a keen interest in decolonization and reducing racism in the performing arts. To that end, she’s a big fan of the We See You White America Theater movement, which gathered tremendous momentum after the police killing of George Floyd in 2020.

“I follow everything they do and I sign all their petitions,” she says.

Elaine Ávila
Elaine Ávila is the first writer of Portuguese ancestry to have her play presented on a major stage in Canada or the United States.

Embracing inclusion from a young age  

She’s also very supportive of the Canadian Latinx Theatre Artist Coalition, even though Ávila is not directly a member. She acknowledges that Portuguese is a colonial language and in Canada, Latinx only describes people who come from the region often referred to as “Latin America”.

In addition, Ávila strongly endorses the Maada’oonidiwag Canadian Anti-Racist Theatre Exchange, which was founded by Lisa C. Ravenbergen, a theatre artist based on unceded Coast Salish territory. On her website, Ravenbergen describes Maada’oonidiwag as “an IBPOC-centred resistance and anti-racist mobilization that focuses on disrupting the colonial project called ‘Canadian theatre’.”

So, what’s the source of her interest in this area? Ávila looks back to her childhood, revealing that she grew up in one of the first truly desegregated neighbourhoods in the United States. It’s called Eichler and when she was young, her friends were Black and of Puerto Rican and Japanese ancestry.

Eichler even attracted the attention of famed African American writer James Baldwin, who commented about it in a documentary, according to Ávila.

But that’s not the only experience that gave her a broader view of society. As a teenager, she and other white kids were brought by bus to a school in a different neighbourhood in a government desegregation initiative.

“They made it a performing arts high school,” Ávila says. “So, I think being part of these two social experiments affected me in a positive way.”

The Firehall Arts Centre and Puente Theatre Production present FADO – The Saddest Music in the World at the Firehall Arts Centre from January 14 to February 5. Opening night is on January 18. For tickets and more information, visit the Firehall website.

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Charlie Smith

Charlie Smith

Pancouver editor Charlie Smith has worked as a Vancouver journalist in print, radio, and television for more than three decades.

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The Society of We Are Canadians Too created Pancouver to foster greater appreciation for underrepresented artistic communities. A rising tide of understanding lifts all of us.

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We would like to acknowledge that we are gathered on the traditional and unceded territories of the Coast Salish peoples of the xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), and Səl̓ílwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations. With this acknowledgement, we thank the Indigenous peoples who still live on and care for this land.