The Girls Can't Help It

Call it drag, call it nouveau vaudeville -- Little Havana's Teatro de Bellas Artes' Midnight Follies is all entertainment

"I told her to give me two weeks and I could fix it," he continues. "I had to have approval over what everyone wore and what number they did. We can't just have one tango after another, bolero after bolero, that just doesn't do. Anarchy was just not going to work."

Back in prerevolutionary Cuba, Herrera had been an actor, director, and playwright, heading up a theater company that bore his name in his native province of Las Villas, located in the center of the island. Still, he was something of an odd choice to oversee a drag production. Most of Herrera's experience had been with religious plays, what he refers to as "mystic theater" -- theatrical presentations of biblical stories and dramas whose plots illustrate Christian morals, presented for and by members of church congregations. He also served as director of the Dramatic Cadre of the Presbyterian Church, writing and directing plays for followers of the Presbyterian denomination. All that changed with the revolution. Castro's government frowned on these dramatic representations of the precepts of Jesus Christ, claiming that they contributed to "the cult of personality." Herrera was enlisted by the new Ministry of Culture to direct plays that outlined the ideologies of the communist regime, but he chafed at his new role, and in 1968 he decided to emigrate to the United States.

Poster-size photos of Herrera in various roles as a stage actor adorn the bedroom of his garage apartment in a quiet Hialeah neighborhood. In one picture he is dressed as an Egyptian pharaoh sitting on a throne. In another he is a sheik, playing the title role in a production of The Great Ali; he was 23 years old and as handsome as Omar Sharif.

Herrera maneuvers his wheelchair over to his tidy desk to look for some old theater programs. Now 65, he contracted polio when he was ten and has been unable to walk since that time. As an actor he played his roles sitting down, he explains, and nobody was the wiser. When Herrera came to Miami, he took advantage of public vocational rehabilitation programs for the handicapped to learn to drive; additionally, he trained as a lab technician, a job he held for six years before retiring and collecting disability payments. But Herrera kept a hand in the theater by writing about local Latin entertainers for El Sol de Hialeah, Replica, Todo, and other Miami area Spanish publications, as well as occasionally directing community and church plays. In 1970, for example, his El Secreto de Ana was performed at the Interamerican Presbyterian Church on NW 29th Street. The program notes laud the director as a master of contemporary mystic theater.

Within this genre, Herrera was concerned with contemporizing basic religious messages. Accordingly he created comedies that could be performed in the church, plays with spiritual themes and present-day settings such as Milagro Junto al Lago (Miracle by the Lake). But his specialty was a sort of ecclesiastical vaudeville that employed the tried-and-true format of light stand-up comedy laced with musical numbers. He figured the same structure would work for Midnight Follies.

For Herrera the fact that he would be helping to put together a show performed by transvestites instead of churchgoers was not an issue. His parents taught him early on that the Christian principle of tolerance applied to everyone. Besides, he stresses, as a person with a disability, he also grew up knowing what it's like to be different.

"I would say that at first it was a bit difficult for me to understand," Herrera admits now, but it became less so when he decided to look at drag in a theatrical light. Given that context, he prefers to use the Spanish word transformista (transformer) rather than travesti (transvestite) when referring to the Midnight Follies cast. "You have so many precedents of men performing as women -- Greek theater, Japanese theater, Shakespeare. Every actor is a transformer. In this case, they're just dressing up as women."

Herrera pauses to turn on a VCR and pop in a cassette of a Midnight Follies performance that was attended by Gloria and Emilio Estefan last year. "We established certain moral norms as well," he explains, as China Chang, dressed in a leatherette leotard, dances a merengue on the screen. "Never, never may the dressing room doors be closed. And everyone must be wearing at least the indispensable clothing [underwear] at all times. And they can't be congregating in the parking lot or anything like that. They know that the minute they do something like that, they can pack up their clothes and go. This isn't one of those places where everyone's running around screaming and doing who knows what.

"I've taught them about relating to the audience, I've taught them about pleasing the public, about what you can say and what you can't," Herrera continues. "If there are black people in the audience, you're not going to make a joke about black people A you don't want to alienate the audience. If I hear someone up there going in the wrong direction, I reprimand them from the wings.

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