It’s Sunrise in Cuba. Will the Light Reach the Stage?


Sage Lewis (American Theater) writes about the past, present, and future of theater in Cuba. If one ignores the plaintive comments about the “near-eternal era of suffering” and “totalitarian micromanagement” of the Cuban people, this article is exceptional in presenting a trajectory of U.S.-Cuba relations in terms of the performing arts. It addresses the recently improved international flow of information and cultural alliances between those countries. (Of special interest is the author’s account of the production of the play The Closest Farthest Away | La entrañable lejanía.) Here are excerpts:

[. . .] In the arts, there’s the same race to reestablish contact. The Minnesota Orchestra has announced plans to perform two concerts in Cuba in May. (In order to be the first U.S. symphony to perform there since Obama’s announcement, their international tour was coordinated with record-breaking quickness; they beat the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, which is also hoping to perform on the island soon.) The Bronx Museum of the Arts has announced an historic collaboration with Cuba’s National Museum of Fine Arts, representing the largest artistic exchange between Cuba and the U.S. in the past 50 years. The show, titled “Wild Noise,” will feature works created from the 1960s to the present addressing questions of identity, urban life and community, and will include exchange programs for artist and teens. [. . .]

Our Shared Stage  [. . .] Before the Cuban Revolution, theatre was a major commercial entertainment, mostly taking the form of musicals and cabarets. The Cuban zarzuela, for example, was a mix of music from Spain and musical theatre from Broadway.

In the 1950s, such Cuban directors as Adolfo de Luis and Vicente Revuelta went to live in New York and worked on and off Broadway. They studied Brecht and the methods of Stanislavsky through contacts with Lee Strasberg; they returned to Cuba with repertory by playwrights such as Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller and Eugene O’Neill. [. . .] Commercial theatre’s era ended with the disappearance of capitalism. But Cuba’s vanguard was distinct from other socialist countries in the fact that it continued to remain quite focused on what was happening in the West. In 1960, The Zoo Story and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? were performed in Havana by Teatro Estudio, and in the years since, Cuban theatre has remained committed to presenting work that critiques the social realities of Cuba—artists were able to win the attention of their audiences by offering work that examined the complexities of an unjust society. That stance notwithstanding, the companies continue to receive funding from the government and tickets are priced very low. During the Revolutionary years, Cuban theatre achieved large audiences of diverse age and social and racial backgrounds.

Beginning in the early 1980s, the International Theatre Institute helped Cuba form new relationships with other companies in the U.S., including those operated by Latinos in New York and supported by the Chicano movement on the West Coast. Helmo Hernandez founded the Havana Theatre Festival and invited the San Francisco Mime Troupe, La MaMa ETC and Bread and Puppet Theater to perform in Havana. [. . .] The ideas of postmodernism started to arrive in Cuba though these exchanges.

Repertorio Español, an Hispanic-focused theatre company in NYC founded by Cuban exiles Gilberto Zaldivar and Rene Buch, brought the first play (Broken Eggs by Eduardo Machado) written and performed by Cuban exiles to Cuba in 1998. Shortly after, they invited the Cuban writer/director Abelardo Estorino and actor Adria Santana of Compañía Teatral Hubert de Blanck to New York for a year-long residency and performances of several Cuban productions. [. . .]

The CASA Latino International Theater Festival in New York (and later the Public Theater) invited such Cuban companies as Teatro Escambray and Cuatro por Cuatro, and in 2001 the Lincoln Center Theater Lab invited one emerging director from Cuba per year to visit New York for workshops at Lincoln Center and the Lee Strasberg Institute. During the second Bush Administration, artists were rarely allowed to travel back and forth, and the few exchanges of the ’80s and ’90s ended.


The single collaborative theatre work between the two countries in the decades between 1960 and 2014 was one in which this writer was involved: With a group of Cuban and American theatre artists, filmmakers and musicians, I cocreated The Closest Farthest Away | La entrañable lejanía, directed by Chi-wang Yang. It premiered in Havana in 2009 and in Miami in 2010. We devised a way of using holographic video projections of Cuban actors onstage as virtual substitutes for their live bodies. We told a story of a young American and a Cuban who were in love but couldn’t share the same physical space, investigating the traumatic psychological effects this has on families and communities separated by the political conflict. A maze of magical and digital interventions created an illusion of a world where cultural exchange was possible. This dramatic use of technology allowed both countries to reflect on the absurdity of our situation. In the end, we achieved a real-life friendship through a die-hard persistence of authorization, ideas and the bits and pixels required to connect our two countries onstage.

It was in 2010 that President Obama eased travel restrictions to liberate performing artists from both countries to start traveling back and forth to present work—as long as the Cuban artists weren’t paid. This has opened the door to an increasing number of new tunnels of communication.

Teatro Buendia performed as part of the Goodman Theatre of Chicago’s fifth biennial Latino Theatre Festival, winning kudos for being “unlike anything we ever see in the United States—because of its power, but also because of its simplicity.” In Miami, presenters such as FUNDarte, Miami Light Project and the University of Miami have hosted Cuban troupes including Teatro El Público, El Ciervo Encantado, Teatro de la Luna and Teatro de Las Estaciones. [. . .]

Late last year, a new Cuban production of Rent, presented by Nederlander Worldwide Entertainment, opened at Havana’s Bertolt Brecht Teatro, marking the first Broadway musical with an all-Cuban cast produced in Cuba in more than 50 years. [. . .]

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