It wasn’t that long ago that Cuba had a respected theatre scene. Ove and Pedro Valdés, famous for Pedro Alvarez and the Yucatan Trilogy, the poetic comedies about the Yucatan of the early 20th century, were the subject of a celebrated documentary film. The country also produced some talented actors, including Helmida Zevallos, singer and dancer, whose unofficial film The Trip (1974) remains a cult classic with its ethnographic approach and dream-like look.
A most influential figure in Latin American theater, Enrique Fuentes Morejon was also one of the many important Cubans who moved to the US to pursue education, playwriting and performing before his death in the early 1990s. Fidel Castro was fond of comparing the US dollar with the colon, describing the latter as, “a modern-day fortune.”
Tony Garcia, an American writer of Latin American descent, is currently in exile from Havana. His novel Man’s Playground emerged from the frustration he felt both being barred by the government from performing and writing about the country and of receiving threatening phone calls from colleagues about his work and past. Late last year, he was the first Cuban to be nominated for the Pulitzer for fiction. His aim was to write a novel about the state of affairs of contemporary Cuba, and specifically its opera scene, which has experienced a decline in scale in recent years.
The Party of Cuban Opera has provided some of the most memorable moments of the country’s history, from Manon as a representative of the failing bourgeoisie, dashing to the buccaneering master, Monteverde, to the ingenuous soprano who meets Norman Hannah in The Barber of Seville on her 18th birthday, tripping out of her stilettos and screaming “Of course!” across the St Louis Arena.
The protagonist of Garcia’s novel, Daniela, is a university professor and the daughter of a beloved opera singer, but what she really wants is to escape the complexity of domestic life to a country where she can be free. When her parents tell her that there are too many distractions for the opera company not to show up at their gigs, Daniela is touched by the efficiency of the relocation plan and leaves, having lost the opportunity to follow her dream. Her novel ends as she moves to Spain with her three children, seeing their futures as more rosy than hers ever was.
Daniela’s story might not have been quite so fantastical if there had been any room for theatre at her university, or any chance for her to develop the wisdom of a lyric soprano who plays the ukulele and reads the entirety of The Age of Innocence by Jane Austen without a translator. When “normal” Cuban people hit the streets one recent day, most of the people I saw had bandanas covering their faces to hide their tearful sobs as they re-enacted their fallen compatriots, their eyes filled with the unimaginable tragedies of island life. What these people want isn’t to travel overseas and find beauty in the strange strangeness of life in today’s world, but to return home and find solace in a more domestic sort of paradise, free from the angry instability of dictatorships that today persist.
During the missile crisis in the early 1960s, the US sent Cuba a message that it would not tolerate a Soviet assault: more than half a million agents in the communist nation were implanted with listening devices in Castro’s and other high-ranking figures’ homes. Those living in exile from Cuba left this effort behind for a time, escaping to the US, Europe and Latin America in small boats for a new and bright future, where they would play the airwaves with snippets of Radio Free Europe and French new wave while observing new changes around them.
And now that Cuba is once again undergoing a democratic transition in which the people are discovering the possibility of freedom, many are returning with guns for just that purpose. How much freedom can you really enjoy in a country where the state controls the script of your own life? How do you feel when you realize that you may have to choose between participating in a theatre performance or queuing up for food at a food truck?
Before coming to Cuba in the 1970s, artists were required to prove that their work was literary or philosophical in nature. When those involved could no longer resist this rigid interpretation of artistic expression, they began to speak on their own terms, whether that was the Ballet Folklorico Garcia Martinez defiantly performing The Nutcracker one year on the island, the weekly plays chronicling the Libertador revolution, or