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Living Altars: How ‘The COVID Monologues’ pays tribute to casualties of the coronavirus

A collage of some of "The COVID Monologues" performers.
A collage of some of “The COVID Monologues” performers. The project is presented by Breath of Fire Latina Theater Ensemble.
(Courtesy of Breath of Fire)

Among the milieu of online entertainment, there’s a theatric YouTube series working on two levels: archiving stories of the dead and processing grief.

“The COVID Monologues,” a project presented by Breath of Fire Latina Theater Ensemble, honors people who have died from COVID-19.

The 24 videos are each about five minutes long. Some of the videos in the collection feature actors performing directly to the camera. Others utilize voice-overs with shots of a cloudy beach or a ride on a subway. There are videos that incorporate personal and historical photos along with the monologue.

The series premiered Jan. 26, but the work is ongoing. The next deadline to submit one-page monologues is March 1. A new batch of recorded monologues will be released in May.

The theater ensemble’s literary director Diana Burbano started to think about launching the project last August when she saw a lot of people in the Latino and theater community dying from the coronavirus. Data about those who had died from the virus were continually climbing, but she didn’t see the people behind those numbers being honored.

“They’re not numbers. They’re people,” Sara Guerrero, the company’s artistic director, said. “It was really about putting a story behind a number that may have otherwise been overlooked … it’s like a living altar in a way.”

Founding artistic director Sara Guerrero and literary director Diana Burbano with her son Lionel in the background.
Founding artistic director Sara Guerrero and literary director Diana Burbano with her son Lionel in the background.
(Courtesy of Breath of Fire)

Some monologues are about people the writers knew firsthand. Others are based on obituaries that moved them or types of people like essential workers.

They’ve heard back from some of the families who weren’t able to have people attend funerals or be present with their loved ones when they died. Guerrero said they were eager to see the video and commemorate the person they have lost.

Breath of Fire worked with the Protest Plays Project in the past where playwrights donate their work to amplify issues like gun or domestic violence. They used the same structure of the initiative to put a call out to people, being specific about the writing prompt — the one-page monologue should focus on celebrating the life lived, not the manner of their death.

“I didn’t want to turn it into what we call tragedy porn,” Burbano said.

Submissions came from Orange County but also from as far away as Latin America, New Zealand and England. There is an editing process and then Breath of Fire members as well as other actors volunteer their time to perform the pieces.

Writers and actors range in experience.

“One of my favorite things is seeing people who don’t consider themselves writers or who don’t consider themselves actors really stepping up and doing this. They’re finding a new love for this,” Burbano said.

"The COVID Monologues" list of 25 writers
Breath of Fire’s “The COVID Monologues” took submissions from 25 writers to create about five-minute-long performances streaming on YouTube.
(Courtesy of Breath of Fire)

Although the project is volunteer-based much like the company itself, donations from viewers benefit Doctors Without Borders.

Burbano and Guerrero are also working with local institutions to continue sharing the monologues and offering advice on how to set up similar projects.

“We’re still in the middle of [the pandemic],” Burbano said. “It’s a little hard to think forward when you’re literally still in the middle of the trauma. But that’s what artists are for. We gather these stories and we help the public process. I think that’s our responsibility.”

Breath of Fire is participating in a Boca de Oro event 2 p.m. on March 7. Five monologues will be highlighted, followed by a discussion with the five writers led by Burbano.

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