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Theater Out of Thin Air: Why Against All Odds, the Theater Thrives in Cuba

In Cuba, there is a saying, “If you don’t love your country, you don’t love your mother.” Although we can all agree that loving your mother is something that comes naturally, there are times when every person wishes they didn’t. Because like all mothers, lovable as they are, they are prone to driving their children a little crazy. For Cubans, living with politics they may or may not not agree with in a Country they can’t help but love, is a bit like tolerating a family member who cannot be changed. The dilemma for Cubans becomes how to express love for their country despite its flaws—a talent I believe Cubans have learned to excel at. They have managed to create art which comments on the problems within the country, both governmental and social, yet the work is not aggressively political. Rather, it is poetic and even at times spiritual in nature and chooses to show the inner struggle of a people who have had no choice but to make the best of the cards they have been dealt. They have mastered the art of critique without blame, of having a voice but using it wisely and craftily. This is partially due to the threat of governmental censorship, and partially due to their loyalty to their homeland. They have managed to offer criticism with style.

When Lillian Manzor-Coats visited Cuba for the VI Festival Internacional de Teatro de La Habana in 1993, She noticed that, “Without a doubt, the real protagonist of this festival was the Cuban audience. They were “able to overcome transportation obstacles, move from one space to another, and face these “status” differences with the very Cuban Attitude of choteo: making fun of everything and everyone.” Manor-Coats noted that foreigners were given preferential seating at the performances over Cubans but the Cuban people faced this with friendliness and sardonic humor. As the saying goes, “you catch more flies with honey.” And for Cubans, their honey is their humor—their life force, and their kindness.

The fact that audiences came from all over Cuba despite these obstacles, tells me that there is a real thirst for theater in Cuba. It has become a place of intense reflection, community, and progress, especially for those who are oppressed. Theaters all over the world tend to become safe harbors for those who are marginalized in other circuits of society—women and homosexuals have found comfort in the theater for many years in the United States and in Europe, so it is no surprise that the Cuban theater would give comfort to these groups as well. But it was not an easy road to get there.

During “dark decade” of the 60’s to 70’s in Cuba homosexuals were persecuted and accused of “improper conduct”. Artists, playwrights, and actors were the main target of the raids which swept many to jail and or to labor camps. Upholding the machismo was, and continues to be, of supreme importance in Cuba. Homosexual men, especially those who are flamboyant in their feminine qualities, challenged the machismo and therefore were sent to camps to be turned into “real men”. The ultra masculine machismo male would not dare to share the air with men who were flamboyantly homosexual. Needless to say, homophobia ran rampant and anyone who even walked a little differently or wore their pants a bit snug could be taken away at a moments notice. In the documentary, Improper Conduct, the film captures the effect of this debacle on the country’s artists. Many writers, dancers, and performers were persecuted, both male and female alike. In the film, writer Jose Mario is interviewed about his experience being sent to a forced labor camps explaining that one guard, “told me with a sneer, that I was in the writers and Artists Union and that artists, intellectuals, and writers are all faggots.” Some did their best to hide their homosexuality during this time. Others left the country, and others still rebelled and took their knocks. One performer who went on to become a successful drag star in Miami explained that even in prison they would make dresses out of sheets, laughing when he said, “you know how we are, we tear sheets and mattresses to dress up for the party. We had parties in jail and took our beatings.” And this is part of the charm of the Cuban people—their resilience which is always paired with choteo. Even when things are at their worst, breaking their spirit is not done easily.

During the “dark decade”, women who were accused of being homosexual were also sent to rehabilitation camps, though the consensus in the documentary was that while male homosexuality was absolutely not tolerated, female homosexuality was seen as a bit mysterious and even sexy, though only if they maintain a feminine appearance since “men don’t mind the image of two women in bed together.”

Playwright Ana Marie Simo was involved in the feminist movement and was put in jail for being accused of being homosexual during the 1960’s. She was put into a room with 40 other women, many of whom were naked, where they were forced to sleep and defecate on the floor. Many women were kicked in the breasts, beaten and screamed through the night. She was arrested for hanging out with other writers who were considered antisocial and was told she, “would not get out alive unless she told the guards all she knew”. Students were ordered to go to the Plaza de La Revolution and applaud new laws. It was risky not to comply with the government in every possible way since these were the people who had the power to either send one to jail or to a university. This proposition does not leave much of a choice for the Cubans.

Teatro Publica, established in 1992 by Carlos Diaz, takes its name from the Frederico Garcia Lorca play of the same name, meaning Public Theater, and was the first to center around characters who were two male lovers. Lorca wrote the play while visiting Havana in the 1930’s. Struggling with his views on the Franco regime in his home country of Spain, Lorca famously said, “If I ever should get lost, look for me in Cuba.”

Lorca has always been an important playwright for Cubans. In speaking with my grandmother who was born in Cuba in 1930, she described for me the importance of reading Lorca plays in school, namely his plays, Blood Wedding, and The House of Bernarda Alba. Many Lorca plays are metaphors for his view of the Spanish government and were his way of rebelling against the Franco regime. Like many great playwrights, he wrote in the most coded way possible in order to express personal frustrations and make the themes universal. His most famous plays focus on female protagonists who feel trapped by societal rules which restrict female sexuality and who they are allowed to love in cultures which honor the machismo. In both Blood Wedding, and The House of Bernarda Alba, the female protagonist dies by the end of the play for chasing the life they want and for allowing themselves to be sexual beings in pursuit of passion and men they are forbidden from loving. It is Lorca’s way of protesting the government and pointing to his inability to express himself truthfully as a homosexual man in a world where out of the closet homosexuality was essentially a death sentence.

These plays are celebrated in Cuba, along with other Lorca plays which are more poetic in nature and call for more experimental theatricality. I believe that Cubans took hold of his plays because they responded to the way the protagonists rebel within their structure. Each of these characters runs hot with life and passion and finds themselves reaching for more than the life they have been given. There is no question for why these characters would appeal to the Cuban people. It gave them an outlet for the idea of rebellion inside of the safe cover of a story. The themes speak to the soul of the Cuban people and a thirst to get out from underneath oppression. El Público Teatro became popular through a festival of plays by North American playwrights Robert Anderson and Tennessee Williams, in which they presented Williams’ The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire, as well as Robert Anderson’s Tea and Sympathy. These plays are known in the U.S. for dealing with issues of homosexuality and in fact The Glass Menagerie and Tea and Sympathy played in theaters directly across the street from one another at the time of their premiere in the U.S. in the 1940’s, a time when for the U.S., this topic was beginning to come to the forefront, if only in a discrete way. The Glass Menagerie only hints at homosexuality and never talks about it outright. A Streetcar Named Desire is famous in the United States and most choose to focus on the plot line involving Stanley and Blanche, however one of the strongest moments in the play is when Blanche chooses to divulge the information about her husband killing himself because he couldn’t live with being a homosexual.

Fifty years later these plays which once opened the door to playwrights putting homosexuality on the stage in the United States, opened the dialogue in Cuba and paved the way for this company to later produce original material around the issue of homosexuality.

Actor Jorge Perugorría, of the enormously successful Cuban film, Strawberry y Chocolate, took a special interest in Lorca plays,and helped to found El Teatro Público in 1992. (The Melancholy of the cage, Johannes Birringer, Performing Arts Journal, NO 52 (1996) PP. 103-128 The John Hopkins University Press) The film was based on a short story by Senel Paz entitled El Lobo, el Bosque, y el Hombre Nuevo, (The Wolf, the Forest and the New Man). It is the story of two men, one gay and one straight, with different ideas about the government in Cuba. Ultimately it is a story of friendship that supersedes any disagreements they could have politically or otherwise. The story functions as a metaphor for Cuba dealing with the “dark decade” and how to move forward after the tragedy that was the treatment of homosexuals by the Castro regime in the 1960’s. The story was adapted for the stage numerous times including Sara Maria Cruz’s version, a solo piece, entitled La Cathedral del Helado (The Ice Cream Cathedral) and was performed at the Festival International de Teatro de La Habana. The story, it’s various theatrical adaptations and the film, successful largely due to the remarkable performance by Jorge Perugorría, really began to open the lines of communication in Cuba regarding it’s sordid past around the issue of homosexuality, confirming that theater and film can truly be a means of political motivation with the power to spread awareness.

In the 1980’s and 90’s, As the embers of the revolution began to cool and reveal its true damage, Cuba was at the height of economic crisis and it’s generation of post revolutionary artists were coming of age in a world where freedom to express was still limited but the window for expression was beginning to widen. Young artist, who were previously cast aside, found themselves wanting a voice in the theater scene. They craved experimental forms of performance that would allow them to express through movement, poetry and song, utilizing their Afro-Cuban roots by incorporating aspects of Yoruban Culture into performance and training techniques along with the methods of training which had been brought over from Europe by Vicente Revuelta, brother of film and stage actress Raquel Revuelta. Artists graduating from ISA (Superior Institute of Art) and the “school of hard knocks” alike were looking to make their voices heard on a theatrical platform.

This group of artists coming of age during the “special period” were able to integrate topics which the generation who came of age during the revolution were not able to express, or at least were forced to do so in a more coded way in order to hide the themes from the Cuban government more carefully. Most performers were free only to express the lack of freedom to express. Anything more would have been dangerous.

By the 1990’s, this new wave of theater artists had begun creating work which made the theater and film coming out of Cuba much more progressive than those plays and films of the 1960’s and 1970’s as Cuba began to address the homophobia within the country and the need for change. Jorge Perugorría said in an interview with Johannes Birringer regarding Strawberry y Chocolate,, “I think we have a lot of work to do. Maybe we don’t persecute homosexuals in Cuba anymore, but we still don’t have the political maturity to give equal opportunity to everybody regardless of political, ideological or any other kind of difference. Society still doesn’t give gays and lesbians a chance to help save our homeland. The Cuban problem is complex; the film is about intolerance, it argues for a reconciliation of all Cubans, and the embrace between Diego and David sends a message to all Cubans, here and abroad, in any part of the world: it’s time to join together, to accept our differences because only by uniting and accepting our differences will we be able to save our country from this economic crisis.” (Interview with Jorge Perugorría, Havana, May 29, 1994.)

What appears to be missing from he conversation of greater acceptance of homosexuals in Cuba seems to be the acceptance of female homosexuals. One of few Cuban plays I could find on the issue of female homosexuality was Of Hydrangeas and Violets which brings to light the issue of same sex couples having children and the parental roles they take on in raising the child. In it two women face this dilemma as they prepare for having a child. A play of similar content entitled Women or Nothing, was presented at the Atlantic Theater Company in New York in 2013 and even here in New York City it seemed to bring to the forefront ideas which remain taboo in out society.

Gay women appear to be dismissed as people experimenting with their sexuality in a sort of mysterious or sexy way, since men don’t mind the image of two women in bed together—so long as they are feminine lesbians. Or perhaps they are of little threat because they don’t appear to challenge the Machismo in Cuba. Men who embrace the feminine challenge the machismo more fiercely than gay women, or “Mujeres Fuertes" as they are often called—meaning “strong women”. This term could easily be confused with meaning butch lesbians and in some circles is considered a derogatory term, but what I find interesting about this term is that it embraces the fierce quality of gay women, alluding to the idea that they are somehow less fragile because they don’t need men. It could be argued that all women in Cuba are strong. Most work and take care of children, in addition to doing the cooking and cleaning and are expected to tolerate their husband’s extramarital affairs. I would say that only a “strong woman” could handle all of this. There is also the fact that more female directors have received awards in Cuba than men, though it is rarely mentioned. Cuban women are thriving in the theater community because of this fierce strength they carry and a need for change and for equality pushes them to make art which keeps Cuba pushing for it.

“Believe me, it wasn’t easy for a woman who isn’t beautiful to stand up there and have people listen—not because they like to look at her, but because they’re listening, hearing what she’s telling them in her songs.” (Women In Cuba: Old Problems and New Ideas, Johnnetta B. Cole and Gail A. Reed) This is a quote from Sara Gonzales, a singer who when interviewed, remarked on the difficulty of being a woman in modern Cuba, especially if you don’t happen to me a woman that men want to look at.

The Cuban socialist system has set up a process which hoped to allow for gender equality but the government needs to continue to foster the idea and men and women alike need to help keep the idea in motion by acknowledging it on the day to day level. One way to address the issue is through the creation of theater pieces. The machismo in Cuba doesn’t help this process. A woman who is not “beautiful” will inherently have a harder time being heard. As singer Sara Gonzalez puts it, “Believe me, it wasn’t easy for a woman who isn’t beautiful to stand up there and have people listen—not because they like to look at her, but because they’re listening, hearing what she’s telling them in her songs.” But art in Cuba, can be a wonderful starting place for generating change and motivating equality.

Fatima Patterson has been performing in Cuba for many years. She is the organizer of the “Estudio Macuba” project, “which focuses mainly on the problems of Caribbean women”. (Manzor-Coats, pg. 45.) Her performance of Repique por Mafifa involved Patterson dressing as a “mannish lesbian” and “focused on this woman’s struggle for acceptance in a profoundly Machista culture, that of the percussion orchestra of Los Hoyos, Santiago de Cuba’s most popular neighborhood.” (Manzor-Coats, pg. 45.) The play follows Mafifa as she meets the challenge of asserting her sexual independence in a world where the mulatta woman is objectified as a sexual object. Fatima Patterson has made great strides in generating theater that gives voice to homosexual women in Cuba, helping them to be understood and taken seriously in a Country largely dominated by the machismo.

Close to each of Fatima’s performances is her link to the Caribbean rituals which are woven intrinsically into the Cuban culture. Much of the aesthetic in the theater is born out of links to Santeria and some theater companies have even founded there acting and performance techniques on aspects of Santeria. Tomas Gonzalez coined a term for his company which he calls, “acting in trance”, in which actors partake in a rigorous training which unlocks the subconscious and allows creative energies to flow in an improvisational style which does not require rehearsal, but does require training which prepares the performer for an exchange of energies which allows story to come through and is largely based on the methods of Grotowski, yoga and I Ching. Their show Danza Oraculo, or “Oracle Dance” does not have a plot, but invites the audience in a profoundly unique manner.

One of the most important theater companies which attempted to generate social change and reflection following the revolution was Grupo Teatro Escambray. As put by Alma Villegas in her article “Theater in Revolutionary Cuba,” following the revolution, “many Cuban actors, and directors sought the way toward a theater that could develop a cultural national identity and channel the revolutionary process that was under way through the techniques of Grotowski, the Theater of Cruelty, the Living Theater, the ‘happening’ or Documentary Theater.” What Villegas is saying is that there was a need for theater which could be interactive and lay the issues of the people on the table in a way that felt interactive and community building. The “Declaration of Principles” stated, “Our attitude must be responsible and profound. Our principle must be, above all, to do theater in every corner of the country, be there theaters or not...we have to respond the bourgeois medium’s fatalistic conception of man and society with works that portray our vision of the future and our faith in the full realization of man.” (Declaration of Principles. Cuba 1968:4-6) Theater was becoming a tool used to gage the emotional and psychological temperature of the people. The hope was that “In the process of developing a critical theater, one that reflects the deepest and most authentic concerns and interests of the public that consumes it, the viewer would find reflection in it and develop the need for self-expression.” (Villegas, pg. 26) The goal of Teatro Escambray was to reach people living in the most rural areas of Cuba and give them a voice by generating plays based on conversations with locals, discussions they would have with audiences following performances, and audience integration during the play. Their plays brought to the surface a variety of social issues including those related to male chauvinism. Many performances ended with an opportunity for the audience to discuss the social limits placed on women and spectators were able to debate discrimination they were seeing in the current culture and even vote on whether characters in the play should have more rights.

Flora Lauten, A former Miss Cuba and actress of the 1960’s became heavily involved with the creation of Teatro Escambray, taking a very special interest in the rights of women and fighting for ways to see them represented in the theater. And not just women, but real women. She moved to the rural area of Escambray and worked closely with the people before eventually moving in order to locate herself somewhere where her children could receive a higher level of education.

It is said that the goal of theater as a whole is to bring greater social awareness and connection between people. Villegas says, “the objective of the theatrical act is the search for new forms of expression and communication with the audience, which is achieved through new texts and new ways of presenting old texts” (Villegas, pg. 26) Villegas probably didn’t realize that she was essentially quoting, nearly verbatim, the mission statement for Flora Lauten’s Teatro Buendía, the company that Lauten would form later in her life, after her time with Teatro Buendía. She would carry with her the need to connect with the community, and also blend her works with poeticism by using “old texts as if they were new texts as if they were old.”

When actress, teacher, and artistic director, Flora Lauten’s Teatro Buendía began in the 1980’s, her group of recent graduates from the ISA decided they would make theater based on the principle of “experimentation against all odds.” Her group truly paved the way for other artists who came after. She, with the help of playwright Raquel Caririo took great classical texts, often that of Shakespeare, and sprinkled in text from famous Cuban poets, tweaking the plays slightly in order to make them relevant to the current social issues in Cuba. Lauten has noted that their plays do not stray from making comments on Cuban lifestyle and the effects of the government, yet they have never been censored by the government and have seen much success in Cuba. From early on, Lauten saw theater as a vehicle for talking about social issues such as women in the work force, and used theater to move forward feminist ideals. The quest of her company has been to extrapolate themes which speak to the current social issues in Cuba, using spectacle to give the audience a visceral experience. Their production of the Tempest explored Shakespeare’s fascination with exotic islands and added text by Cuban writers like Jose Martí to explore the race issues within the play, specific to the Island of Cuba.

My theory is that these plays have managed to keep from being censored because of their experimental nature. When a play pulls at the soul rather than the intellect it makes it hard to point to a specific moment which is anti-revolutionary because every moment is hugely subjective based on the watcher’s experience of it. Using classical plays as a shield behind which social issues can be addressed without coming right out and proclaiming political agendas is also key for this company. The use of lighting and movement and a base in Afro-Cuban spirituality makes the plays feel fluid and experiential rather than Brechtian in terms of agenda. For the government to try to censor such material, they would find themselves a little like trying to catch a fish with their bare hands.

It is also possible that the government, like that of long ago communist Russia, would like to maintain an air of openness, keeping up a pretenses which causes people to think the

government is keeping an open ear to it’s citizens and allowing room for expression which may go against the communist regime. By allowing a certain amount of socially aware theater to go on, they are able to create the allusion of freedom.

Flora Lauten’s Teatro Buendía and Victor Varela’s Teatro del Obstaculo are largely responsible for the shift in theater in Cuba during the 80’s and 90’s, which took the initiative in utilizing young performers, giving them a voice where they had previously been set aside. These young people were coming of age during the special period and were mainly interested in theater which honors the poetic and symbolic over the naturalistic styles that became popular in the U.S. in the 50’s and 60’s and remained the norm in the United States in the 80’s and 90’s, a time when Cuba was facing it’s harshest economic crisis and looking to experimental performance methods to to find a sense of community and catharsis between people as well as make a subliminal commentary on the situation in Cuba.

It makes sense to me that Cuba would be excited by theater which can transform an audience emotionally by way of accessing the subconscious through symbolism, dance and poetry over the naturalism of “kitchen sink” dramas often seen in the U.S. For starters, the theater of the U.S. often requires intricate sets which replicate modern day homes. The resources and funds required for these kinds of performances are not available in Cuba and therefore elaborate sets are often not a possibility and theater makers must get crafty about using recycled goods, great lighting, and well crafted performances to tell their stories rather than relying on the set to do the work of the performance. In fact, in Cuba, often times performances are not seen in a theater at all, but rather in the basements of churches, abandoned buildings, and people’s homes and courtyards. Companies like Victor Varela’s Teatro del Obstaculo began in Varela’s living room in 1985 and in 1987 the group of students, who did not graduate from the ISA, and were bored with other theater being made around Cuba decided to present their performance of La Cuarta Pared in a small room which could only hold eight audience members each night. The show became a wild success, helping to establish the company of young and ambitious artists. From then on they worked in the bottom floor of an old Masonic lodge with no proper theater.

If there is a will there is a way. For some cultures the church is the place that brings the community together, for others it is music, farming, or education. For Cubans art, and particularly the theater is a place that is alive with conversation, dance, music, , humor, text and discovery where they can gain greater understanding for the world around them and their fellow man.


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