Michaela Di Cesare

MICHAELA DI CESARE, photo by Vincenzo D'Alto

by GABRIEL RIEL-SALVATORE

Talks about her upcoming play Terroni: A “Spaghetti” Western

Centaur Theatre’s new Writer-in-Residence Michaela Di Cesare will be delving into a very personal project titled Terroni: A “Spaghetti”  Western. The play will explore the tumultuous time of Italy’s 1861 unification through the complex story of a southern brigantessa (brigand) with a strikingly familiar name: Michelina Di Cesare.

Your upcoming work is inspired by the tragic story of a rebel and revolutionary that bears your name. Was it a shock to discover that there was another famous Michelina Di Cesare out there who lived 150 years ago?

She is definitely more “famous” than me. I was very shocked when I discovered this woman because she made me realize how much I didn’t know about my history and the history of Italy as a country.

Michelina Di Cesare was a Risorgimento-era female fighter from Campania fighting against the unification of Italy. Apart from her name, what inspired you to write a play about this unusual character?

Michelina was a complex woman. She was a “bad” woman, a woman who did not do what was expected of her at the time. She was widowed by the age of 21, and it is said she left a child behind in order to join the resistance at 22. She stole and killed in the name of her beliefs. She was an anti-hero. I think it is important to portray women on stage in ways that reveal the complexity of their choices.

Michelina’s story is personal for me. I have been called brave and courageous because of my work. I have also been called bad, disobedient and heartless. My work has come at great personal expense. I identify as an activist and as a feminist, yet my cause and my deeds seem small in comparison to this woman’s, who lived over 150 years ago. She has me re-examining contemporary feminism and our limitations. Michelina was willing to give her life to a cause.

What are we willing to fight for today?

The bodies of Michelina Di Cesare and her husband Francesco Guerra were publicly exposed naked in the main square of the town of Mignano in Southern Italy after they were shot dead by a group of soldiers in 1868. Why was it important for you to visit Mignano to prepare for your play? Michelina is from Caspoli, a town very close to Mignano. When she joined Guerra in the resistance, they mostly camped in the mountains surrounding Mignano. I was able to hike a trail to a cave where it is said she and the troupe would hide out. It was important for me to gain an esthetic understanding of the geography. Furthermore, Michelina is a hero in those specific towns. The people there are big history buffs, and what’s important in this instance, when recounting the history of the losing side, is to listen to the oral history these people have to offer. Of course the history books and the official government museums don’t cover the resistance or “brigandage” from a neutral perspective.

The Italian Risorgimento is a complex and delicate topic that is still dividing Italians to this day. Why delve into such a crab bucket?

It is so important for us to know and understand, especially as second and third-generation immigrants, especially with xenophobia on the rise. The fact that Italy is not ethnically homogenous is important. The fact that it is a young country, almost as young as Canada, is important to understand. We tend to think of the “old country,” but the Mediterranean has always been a place of exchange between cultures. Southerners have been forced into a narrative of being the undesirable element in the creation of a civilized country, but there was splendour in the South before unification. It is still splendid.

You decided to name your play Terroni: A “Spaghetti” Western, which is a clear reference to this great genre of the heydays of Italian cinema. Is there a part of comedy involved in your play?

My work always incorporates comedy, even at its most tragic. I think levity is a great way to invite an audience into a story. Nostalgia is another thing that puts people at ease . . .  and of course looking at politics over time, nostalgia can also be weaponized. I love to play with these concepts and leave my audience with questions once the laughter fades.

The Centaur Theatre has always supported your work. How important is this new residency for you at this point in your career?

I grew up at the Centaur: first as an audience member with a student subscription; then when I was presented at the Wildside Festival with In Search of Mrs. Pirandello and again with a Main Stage debut for Successions. This is the first time Centaur is supporting my process as a writer and the first time collaborating with artistic director Eda Holmes from the beginning stages of a project. It is important because Centaur is not only offering its stage this time, they are offering incubation and support. It’s a great opportunity.

When is the play scheduled to debut?

I am writing the play this season, and it will need to be workshopped extensively next season. So the premiere date is not set in stone.