Las Horas De Belen (A Book of Hours)

Institute History

  • 1998 Theatre Lab


LAS HORAS DE BELEN – A BOOK OF HOURS – director Ruth Maleczech, poet , translator Luz Aurora Pimentel, composer Liliana Felipe, performer Jesusa Rodriguez, scenic designer Julie Archer

BELEN was founded in 1683 by three priests as a house of refuge for women from the evils of the outside world; the problem was that women themselves were also considered one of the great evils during this misogynistic period in Mexico’s history. While single women with no means of support often entered Belen willingly, women considered dangerous by the church (orphans, widows, abandoned wives, adulteresses, actresses, single women, and prostitutes) were often lured or coerced into going into Belen. Good looking women were particularly urged to move into the institution. Two of the founding priests of Belen would go out to the poorest sections of the city, disguised as men looking for a good time, and try to sweet-talk such women, particularly prostitutes, into entering the refuge.

While Belen did give shelter from the dangers of the streets, it was a shelter nearly impossible to get out of. The windows were bricked up so that women wouldn’t have any visual connection with the outside world, there were guards at the doors, and visitors were not allowed. Women were expected to live as if they were nuns, their days filled with a constant, unvaried regime of prayer, work, and communal living. No privacy was allowed nor friendships allowed to be made. And while some women adapted to this, others rebelled, went insane, killed themselves, or escaped with the help of their boyfriends or pimps. A number of times these men made assassination attempts on the priests in retaliation for stealing away their women. One of the three founding priests himself finally went insane, believing till the end of his days that women were attacking him. He was locked up for the rest of his life by the church he had served so faithfully. The archbishop – a man who would not let women look at him, touch him, or step across the threshold of his residence – believed this priest was possessed by the devil as a punishment for the “good” that he had done in creating Belen.

By the 19th century, Belen was no longer considered a house of refuge, but became a true prison for both women and men when it passed from the church’s to the government’s hands. From an altruistic and actually enlightened beginning, an attempt on the part of the Catholic Church to provide a safe haven for women to live and create a community, Belen developed by the 19th century into one of the most infamous and dangerous prisons in Mexico City.

In its twenty five year history Mabou Mines has sought cross cultural collaborations and with this project the company has made no exception. Inspired by the history of this Mexican prison and the women’s lives it affected, Catherine Sasanov will create the textual setting for this musical theatre work. Her poetry will be translated by Luz Aurora Pimentel and Alberto Blanco into Spanish and set to music by composer Liliana Felipe. The production is envisioned as a kind of cabaret style setting with the poems sung in Spanish by Felipe. Designer Julie Archer will enhance the setting with visuals combining overhead, slide and video projections. The poems will be projected in English as if on a “roll.” Historical images will combine with prison graffiti as part of the projected environment. Graffiti painted during performance will add to the visual and aural interplay. The performer, Jesusa Rodriguez, will embody a changing figure between, and sometimes during, the songs and the visuals. Through changes of costumes, movements and genders she will represent another thread of the performance tapestry. The tone of the evening will be a loose, lightly-staged work in a relaxed setting encouraging discussion on the part of the audience.
—Ruth Maleczech


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