In the early 1990s, Begona Echeverria was living in Donostia-San Sebastian in the Basque country of Spain. She had a British neighbor who mentioned one day that her father and his brother were among the children evacuated to England after the bombing of Gernika, also in the Basque country, in 1937.
“After the Spanish Civil War ended their mother asked for the brother back but not him,” said Echeverria, a Chino resident and associate dean of academic personnel and professor at UC Riverside’s Graduate School of Education. “He was so angry at his mother that he refused to go back to Spain, even as an adult.”
While that is all Echeverria knows of that story, it sat in her subconscious for about 20 years — then she decided it was a good idea for a play.
“But I decided to change one of the siblings to a sister, to explore the gendered effects of war and displacement,” she said.
When Bella Merlin, professor of theater, film and digital production at UC Riverside, arrived at the university, Echeverria shared her script. Merlin suggested that Echeverria connect with Annika Speer, also a theater professor there, to tap into her expertise.
“We’ve been collaborating ever since,” she said. “Without them, the script would just be sitting in a drawer in my desk.”
Speer would go on to direct the production while Merlin would become one of its actors.
“Bella and Annika have made ‘Picasso Presents Gernika’ so much more than the words I put on the page,” said Echeverria. “With every iteration of the play, Bella continues to amaze me with the emotional nuance she brings to her various roles. I am honored that an actor of her caliber has shown such commitment and passion for the play. And Annika is an inspiration. She reminds me of why I became an academic in the first place: to share knowledge with the world in creative ways.”
Just after the bombing, artist Pablo Picasso painted “Guernica” as an expression of his outrage. The large oil painting has gone on to international acclaim as one of Picasso’s most famous works. Guernica is the town’s Spanish spelling, while Gernika is Basque.
“One of the challenges has been that there are voluminous materials related to the story within the play, which goes from 1937 to 2012,” said Echeverria. “It has been a pleasure working with Annika to curate those materials, to decide which photograph or poster or video will best complement the live performance rather than detract from it.”
In 2019, a staged reading of the play was produced at the Seventh Street Theater in Chino. One of the company’s founders, Paul Larson, was Echeverria’s elementary school teacher. The two had kept in touch over the years and worked together to put the production on the stage, with Speer serving as creative director and Larson directing. Last year another staged reading was held at Santa Monica Playhouse with Speer as director. On June 20, a staged reading will be produced at the United Nations in honor of World Refugee Day.
“This year is the 85th anniversary of the bombing of Gernika, the subsequent evacuation of Basque children to keep them from harm’s way, and Picasso’s creative response to those events,” said Echeverria. “Yet the evacuation of Basque children remains little known in this country, even to Basques like myself. Annika and I wanted to use the play to commemorate those events.”
“World Refugee Day is an international day of recognition honoring the strength, courage and resilience of refugees around the globe,” said Speer. “Given the current events in Ukraine, Afghanistan, Syria and myriad other places, we felt that the evacuation of the Basque children paralleled what is happening on the border of our own country as well as around the world.”
The staged reading of “Picasso Presents Gernika” can be livestreamed at 10:15 a.m. on Monday, June 20, at https://media.un.org/en/webtv/.
Patrick Brien is executive director of the Riverside Arts Council.