A review by Ashley Roque for D Magazine (Dallas).
Dreaming of a life beyond his humble farm town on the island of Cuba, a young boy and his yearning to meet the President of the United States transcend a narrative about the Caribbean island in the local premiere of a play portraying universal themes of desperation, longing, and a pursuit of the American Dream.
Though Cara Mía Theatre Co. opened Yemaya’s Belly only last weekend at the Latino Cultural Center, this production was set in motion a year ago by President Obama’s visit to Cuba in March 2016. Until then, Artistic Director David Lozano had been eyeing the play for years, but questioned its timeliness.
After listening to the president speak in Havana, Lozano was moved by the encounter and felt it was finally time to stage the production in Dallas. Having traveled to Cuba in 2013, he expected the country might soon experience a lot of change.
“I felt this play would be an important work of art to present because, at that time, I thought we would probably say goodbye to the Cuba we’ve known for so long,” Lozano says.
The story was penned by Quiara Alegría Hudes, a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright for Water by the Spoonful and a Tony Award nominee for In the Heights with Lin-Manuel Miranda.
Yemaya’s Belly was her first work, and it was important for her to unmistakably weave in details about the island experience, while being careful to make the story universal.
In the director’s notes for the show, Hudes writes that these characters live with physical hunger, a note about a fundamental sense of desperation that was a challenge for the ensemble to understand and embody.
“It’s about longing, it’s about isolation,” says Director Marisela Barrera. “He goes off in search of the American Dream and he’s isolated in this boat in the middle of the ocean. Many of us can relate to that in terms of losing someone you love, losing home, searching for your home. That is definitely an immigrant story.”
At the same time, it was important for the ensemble to convey that this is not the only Cuban narrative. In fact, the playwright never expressly mentions Cuba, allowing the show to represent any Latin American country.
“Not naming Cuba allows it live in a different, fictional space, and it allows for poetic license on the part of the playwright and creative teams,” Lozano says. “The audience is also able to see parallels with other parts of the world where people are suffering through challenges of food and water and also displacement.”
Barrera believes staging the play now is intuitive, not only because of what is happening between the U.S. and Cuba, but also with U.S. relations around the rest of the world.
“Theater is political, it’s visceral, and if it’s not that, you’re not doing teatro,” Barrera says. “Teatro does raise those tough questions. We can’t disengage from the political. … That’s just the reality of theater making.”
This challenge aligns with Cara Mía’s mission: to produce stories by Latinos, for Latinos to process their own experiences. In a time when people are demanding more diversity from their entertainment, Cara Mía is answering this call through theater.
“Cara Mía is a vital voice in Dallas,” Barrera says. “It has a history of focusing on these particular stories, but they’re stories that resonate no matter what culture you’re from.”
Living in a city where 43 percent of people are Latino, Lozano believes it is vital to provide cultural experiences that allow Latinos to see themselves, as many may not feel represented in other forms of media.
“Without hearing stories that reflect your experiences, it’s hard to understand who you are,” he says. “It’s also important to proliferate these stories through Dallas so the city knows who we are.”
“Theater is political, it’s visceral, and if it’s not that, you’re not doing teatro.“
That mission comes to life in Yemaya’s Belly as each member of the team brings his or her own perspective to the role.
The original music was created by Musical Director S-Ankh Rasa, who infused his own style and Senegalese heritage into the play, representing the African influence found throughout Cuba’s shores. Also, actor Omar Padillo, who plays the young boy and lead role of Jesús, shares an immigration story that parallels his character’s.
Beyond staging an artistic and inspirational experience, the company aims to integrate itself into the community, connecting its work to what is going on around them.
“If our play could influence our elected officials, then that would be one of the ultimate accomplishments because then we could transform the way our legislators treat and receive immigrants and refugees from other countries,” Lozano says.
On March 18, the company will host a community conversation about “The Trauma of Displacement Immigration and Deportation.” The group’s hope is to create a safe space for people to share their stories, before the ensemble goes onstage to share its own.
“My hope is the audience walks away with the experience of what it means to travel in a hand-built raft from a Caribbean island to Florida, and being so desperate to reach a new land,” Lozano says. “I think it’s important for our audience to understand that because it’s happening as we speak around the world.”