In January 2009 Cubans celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Revolution, without Fidel, and, it seems, they celebrated with little joy as well as with little support from the Cuban Revolution’s followers in Latin America. Watching journalistic notes about the government celebration, I remembered my last visit to the island, more than 15 years ago.
I do not want to talk (although it is unavoidable) about the condition of Cuban politics and their troubles nor about their achievements and successes (as Raúl Castro has called them). No, I do not want to analyze their situation during those years, I prefer to talk about what I experienced in that visit: its theater.
I travelled to Havana in 1994 as part of a Mexican committee for a theatrical publications encounter, "Encuentro Internacional de Pubicaciones Teatrales Conjunto 94", organized by Casa de las Americas, a very well known Cuban organization. I represented Escenología, the renowned Mexican publishing house as well as the Performing Arts Research Centre, with a donation of some copies of its stage collection books (very famous in the Hispanic world), which comprised about 50 volumes in those days. My job there was simple: to take a course (attending lectures), make a nice speech about Escenología and donate the books in a small ceremony, nothing else. The rest was about enjoying Cuba, its theater and its artists.
The first and biggest impression I had was that theater was immensely popular in the island; apparently, the lack of electronic ways of mass communication dominated the Cuban cultural spectrum, and so theater as a live media was one solution for the entertainment of the common Cuban, exactly as bicycles were for transportation.
I met a few theatre groups, directors, writers, actors, set designers and producers, all of them eager to contact artists and researchers from abroad (I was there as part of Escenologia and not as an actor, so I was kind of a researcher or journalist for them), as I was also eager to learn about their world. These are three of the contacts I still remember clearly.
“Teatro El Público” and Carlos Díaz.
The first encounter was during the inaugural meeting of the congress, with some actors from “Teatro El Público”, a company considered "gay" in Cuba, considered “gay” because of its drama as well as the director, actors, playwrights and of course its subjects. This company had become famous thanks to the stage production of "Las Criadas" (The Maids) by Jean Genet and “Hacia Moscú”, an adaptation of “Three sisters” by Anton Chekhov. Those three sisters in “Hacia Moscú” were played by men. They were preparing a new production of "El Público", the controversial play by Federico García Lorca, whose text is very well known because of its homosexual subject. The group of actors led me that night to the complete company with which I had an informal reunion. It seems that they were on the verge of collapse, but surviving; many of its members had left the country and many others wanted to follow suit; that was a common feeling in the Cuban artistic environment.
They wanted to share their theatrical experience in those productions and repeated some texts and movements for me; it was the first time I listened to Chekhov’s texts with a Cuban accent and the first time I saw them played in that way. I was amazed by this “alternative” way of staging in a communist regime and they absolutely gained my support. They told me about the public reaction to their performances: some spectators reacted by leaving during the play and some by staying and welcoming every movement and text. They also told me that they weren’t chosen to perform during the congress, maybe because of their different productions which could mislead the idea of the Cuban Theatre in the minds of foreigners (I have learnt about that very well now that I am living in China). My meeting with Carlos Díaz, the director, was very short and we could only talk about simple things, and, of course, about the difficulty they had in producing any play of their style, but almost nothing about the acting technique they used or their future plans. Now I have read that Díaz and his company are still working in their own theatre and they are an important institution in the Cuban cultural world (2).
Grotowski followers: "Segismundo, exmarqués"
My second contact with Cuban theatre artists was an invitation to a special performance, "Segismundo, exmarqués" by "Teatro Obstáculo", a company which promoted their work as “artaudian and grotowoskian”; my memories are weak about this company but I can remember very well my experience during that performance.
It was a kind of in-home theater (a house where it seems they also lived in) in a central part of Havana. The group caught my attention at that time because of their acting technique; it resembled what we were working in Escenología with Jaime Soriano’s teachings. Jaime, years earlier, had assisted Grotowski in the US, so our links through Grotowski’s way of seeing theatre were evident.
During this performance I saw everything that I had learnt with Soriano, but what I didn’t see was a line, or a sense of one. I remember getting sleepy during the whole performance, though I never found it totally boring. I was enjoying their movements with a very well trained, disciplined body, different movements, and also enjoyed their especial voice, different sounds also, kind of religious songs, some sound explorations using their bodies in combination with their voices, all in an apparent (I can not assure it) disjointed assembly; everything was slow and strange. I discovered those were the same exercises we usually did in our place, but there didn’t seem to be a chain of actions telling a story, it was like a ritual game without sense. Nothing was helping to appreciate that performance: the time of day (noon) and the heat (there was no air conditioning), and lunch hour. The only thing we all were thinking about was getting out at soon as possible to refresh our selves and have a good lunch.
At the end of it I spoke with some other guests, but not with anyone from the company (they left at the end and did not appear again). I have read that the whole company left Cuba and work in Miami.
Fidel and “Manteca”
My third experience with Cuban theatre was the performance of “Manteca”, a play by the Cuban playwright Alberto Pedro Torriente (born 1954). The organizers of the encounter wanted us to appreciate Cuban theatre, but for some reason didn't want we see this performance. They had prepared three others including "Segismundo, exmarqués", "La boda" by Virgilio Piñeira and "Las penas saben nadar" by A. Estorino but not "Manteca".
"Manteca" was a successful Cuban theater production, a production that had attracted crowds during the months before. It was 1994 and Cuba was in the middle of a very strange political moment: some months before Castro had opened the doors for anyone who wanted to leave the island, and thousands did leave, and then he ordered them closed again, followed by some prosecutions and many new restrictions; people were not happy, people were maybe even angry.
I remember this production as a great farce with some points of social criticism. The success of the play had a very simple reason, the reading subtext about a pig secretly raised in an Havana appartment. In the play the animal is loved but hated, it is motif of desire but also of resentment; the pig was identified with Fidel Castro himself. As we were warned of this general reading of the play before seeing the performance, we could then understand the loud laughs among the Cuban spectators that night, it was a public practically in euphoria. The symbolism with the animal clearly took me back to "The Wild Duck" by Ibsen (the pig, as the duck, never appear on stage), but the audacity of Cuban slang and game was what made it truly memorable. The work that we were experiencing as spectator was the theatrical phenomena itself, an event whose worth lies within its context: Cuba with her doors closed once again after the last exodus of the early 90's.
I have rarely enjoyed a live audience as much as I did that night, I can not remember how actors played, and it must have been more common, even more superficial than the other two companies I had seen in Cuba, but certainly they worked well for Cuban standards; those were very functional actors with a very functional technique.
I also discovered that Cubans went to the theater as ancient Greeks did it, to experiment a social catharsis; they could not unleash their anger and their pain in real life but they could do it in a comic piece, in a crazy farce, laughing, clapping, screaming. Everyone wanted the pig, and everyone wanted to steal the pig, and everyone wanted to kill it, to eat it but the animal was untouchable, it was desirable; that was Fidel.
I have not returned to Cuba since that visit and my memories have become a kind of myth edited by my imagination. It is important to write this exercise to locate and deal with them. The 50th anniversary of the revolution and the happiness of the leaders who speak about it made me think about what I lived and what I watched in just the few days I was there. I personally do not remember happiness among Cubans. I remember sadness and worrying faces, especially one, that of a poet I exchanged several books with (a good part of my library exists thanks to an absurd exchange with Cuban artists and students). He chatted with interest about an exchange of ideas with foreign artists, but he was sad and angry; he didn’t want to sell his books but there was no choice, he wanted to eat different, something he could buy in a shop of imported products. I paid for them and I don’t feel bad for it.
At the end of my stay I organized a party with those who I had known. I didn’t spend much money and I could buy what they had a hard time to find and enjoy: cans of tuna, chicken, ham, biscuits, cheese, soft drinks, alcohol ... nothing special. It was a fantastic experience: I learned how to drink “café expresso”, in one stroke; I was taught how to drink rum, smoothly to endure the aroma; and certainly I was taught how to dance alone, with a partner, and in a group. Sweating copiously, the heat of Havana had become bearable, even enjoyable. We all were speaking loudly, in a chaotic way, with alcohol inside and with our heads dancing as well. At some instant they read some texts, some others spoke of their dreams. In the end, the satiety of the meal and the alteration of the vessels stopped, and we began to talk about “the pig"; everything changed, their mood, their faces. They said they were powerless trying to remove that "revolutionary" image of Fidel, they were artists, their work was the theater, not to carry on the Cuban revolutionary image of Fidel all over the world. After hours (literally) of bitterness, they began to get up and leave with some phrases common to them: -"Once again, ending with Fidel!"-, -"All of our parties end up with Fidel" -, -"Now I leave, you continue talking." And that happened, many of them also left Cuba years later.
Our party was almost over, so I left with the last ones for a walk through the “malecón”. At one point a police patrol stopped near us and asked questions; they said we wanted to exploit some tourists or even steal something (they thought I was Cuban, like them), but we were free to go after they checking my papers. My new friends were nervous, some angry, as I was.
Once among friends and in that long and great way along the seaside, with some bitter smiles, I looked at the sea and the huge row of lamps burning through the morning in Havana.
We were free in the solitude of the malecón, we were refreshed by the air, the sea's movement was strong, it was almost dawn, the sea that night was the Cuban theater and it was somewhat rough.
(1) This is a link to a Cuban official cultural site where Díaz is very well treated: HYPERLINK "http://www.havana-cultura.com/EN/performing-art/carlos-diaz/teatro-el-publico.html#1519"http://www.havana-cultura.com/EN/performing-art/carlos-diaz/teatro-el-publico.html#1519