Playwright wrestles with past in changing Cuba
A boy growing up in the tumultuous aftermath of Fidel Castro’s revolution is torn between his communist mother and alienated middle-class father, seeking to find his own way in a world turned upside down by history.
This is the story of Cuban playwright Carlos Celdran’s acclaimed new play, “Ten Million,” a coming-of-age tale set in a time of national turmoil that has finally made it to the stage, decades later, in a Cuba that is slowly but steadily changing.
Celdran, 52, takes a searing look at the fallout of the 1959 revolution, something that could never have made it past the communist government’s censors in the era the play depicts.
“Cuban theater has changed, just like Cuban society, which has opened up to more controversial and complex visions of itself,” Celdran told AFP.
The play takes its title from Castro’s ambitious campaign in 1970 to harvest 10 million tons of sugar, the cash crop the island depended on for its economic survival.
After Cold War enmity cost Cuba its biggest trade partner, the United States, Castro ordered a nationwide mobilization to reach the record-shattering sugar target.
The project embodied all the hope of the revolution. And its ultimate failure would come to embody its disappointments.
– Lost innocence –
The central character, played by 26-year-old actor Daniel Romero, is a youth with no name whose mother throws herself into the campaign, joining the crews of students and factory workers dispatched to swing machetes in the sweltering cane fields.
Described as a “toughness fanatic,” she rejects her fragile, introverted son, sending him to boarding school to be indoctrinated with revolutionary ideals.
As the years go by and adolescence sets in, he finds refuge in books and his first boyish romances, before childhood abruptly ends with the turn of the decade.
In 1980, his father is one of thousands of asylum-seekers who storm the Peruvian embassy in Havana, triggering an international crisis.
After days of diplomatic wrangling, Castro agrees to let them leave for the United States, throwing in some prisoners and mental patients for good measure.
In the build-up to the mass exodus — known as the Mariel boatlift — the young man is forced to go hector the “traitors” outside the embassy.
But even as he marches with the jeering crowd of communist party faithful, he secretly hopes to catch a last glimpse of his beloved father.
Thirty years will go by before he sees him again.
Ironically, his mother makes the same exodus several years after his father, abandoning both her son and her communist ideals.
– Audiences riveted –
Celdran wrote the highly autobiographical play more than a decade ago.
“It was born slowly and inadvertently. It was like I needed (to write it),” he said.
But for years, he kept it to himself for personal reasons, he said.
Now he has finally brought it to the stage at the state-run and -funded Argos Theater, a 100-seat venue that he directs and which sits just off Havana’s iconic Revolution Square.
“Ten Million” arrives just as Cuba is turning the page on the events it portrays by slowly reopening to the world, most notably by restoring ties with the United States.
The play does not point fingers or take sides in its treatment of Cuban history, approaching it instead through emotion and personal experience.
That seems to have struck a chord with theatergoers.
“Never in all the years I have worked in the theater in this country have I seen an audience react like they react to this play. There’s such a special communion with the audience,” said actor Caleb Casas, who plays the father.
“I think we all see this as something special for all of us that Carlos wrote, that he brought out over such a long period of time. He has filtered it and it’s there, every thing, every word, makes an impression on the audience.”
Every Cuban has lived the events depicted in the play, directly or vicariously. Performances are often pierced by sobs from the audience, according to the cast.
“For me, it’s like an exorcism,” said Waldo Franco, who plays the narrator.
“Every night I free myself from a different demon I’ve kept inside.”