Rites of Passage

On-stage a man straddles a tire covered with netting, and then ties the side of a wooden ladder to the tire with a rope. Under cover of night, accompanied only by the sound of crickets, he swiftly constructs a raft. Once, twice, he hears a sound and looks up, panic etched on his face as if he's an animal sensing a predator nearby. He resumes working. As he hauls the raft to the back of the stage, the lights dim and the scene changes. Not a word has been uttered, yet volumes have been communicated: terror, determination, anger, dignity -- qualities that describe the experience of fleeing Cuba, and qualities that imbue the world premiere of Passage, a triumphant new play now at Area Stage on Miami Beach.

A dramatic collage that weaves together accounts culled from taped testimony with music, dance, slide projections, and hauntingly silent scenes such as the one described above, Passage is part documentary, part hallucinogenic fever dream. It is also the first play by director/producer Loretta Greco, who is not Cuban but who grew up in Miami and now lives in New York City. During a visit here almost three years ago, she read a story in the Miami Herald about balseros braving the Straits of Florida in homemade rafts. Inspired by the drama inherent in such a journey, she decided to fashion a play about the subject, interviewing more than 200 people in South Florida, New York, New Jersey, and Cuba; composites of these interviews provide Passage with its narrative thread. Eleven different characters appear again and again, each time offering another installment of their stories, which they tell in English.

For example, there's Emiliano Diez's Dr. Gonzalez, who with subversive wit offers anecdotes about Castro, then relays how he and his family departed for Miami, leaving their house with the lights still on. Nattacha Amador re-creates the courage of a mother at sea with her four sons, all of whom warily eye sharks circling their raft. (Standout performers Diez and Amador show up regularly in Hispanic theater productions, and both have appeared in the popular Latin television soaps Marielena and Guadalupe.) Iris Delgado portrays a spirited exile on a return visit to Havana who is forced to take her daughter to an inadequately equipped hospital. Carlos Orizondo's Eddy describes both his own resourceful escape from the island as well as his wife's decision to remain in Cuba with their sick daughter. In contrast to the other characters, Luz Marabel's Reina, a writer, chooses to stay in Havana and waxes poetic about the salon she has cultivated there.

As associate director for five years at the McCarter Theatre in New Jersey -- and in a similar post for the past season at the Cleveland Play House -- Greco commissioned and helped to develop new plays by writers such as Adrienne Kennedy and Joyce Carol Oates. She also worked closely with director/playwright Emily Mann (Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters' First 100 Years) and actor/playwright Anna Deavere Smith (Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992), whose documentary-style dramas often draw on first-person, nonfiction accounts and interviews (as does Passage).

Greco workshopped Passage at Manhattan's New York Theatre Workshop in February 1995 and at the McCarter in June 1995, and originally had hoped to direct its opening at Area. Instead, she began directing fellow Miamian Nilo Cruz's latest work A Park in Our House at the Theatre Workshop earlier than planned. As a result, Area artistic director John Rodaz took over the directing reins for Passage.

Working closely with Greco, who visited Miami during the play's rehearsals, Rodaz has shaped the piece into a testimonial to hardship, pain, and sacrifice. He employs several ways to tell a collective story, including monologues, dance, music, and moments of nonverbal visual poetry such as the aforementioned building of the raft and a scene that depicts waiting in line for milk, during which the body language of the characters telegraphs frustration and resignation. James Faerron's multilevel set (it serves variously as a crumbling Cuban villa, a public square, and the ocean), along with evocative lighting by J.C. Rodriguez and stirring sound by David Nevins, underscore the promise and the anguish of exile.

Such inventive direction and design convey not only the characters' stories but also an atmosphere of intensity, pressure, loss, decay, hope, relief, and freedom, illuminating the profound drive toward liberty at which language can only hint. While specific to the Cuban situation, the production also alludes to the travails endured by all immigrants, making Passage a universal play.

Cuban-American life and the ambiguous nature of exile have been chronicled previously for English-speaking audiences. Think of Eduardo Machado's autobiographical Floating Islands trilogy, set in both Cuba and Los Angeles, or recall Rafael V. Blanco's comedy Falling Fidel, which premiered at Coconut Grove Playhouse last season. Yet more eloquently than any other play, Passage speaks to non-Hispanic audiences about the plight of Cuban rafters. (Other works dealing with the same subject are in progress, including Nilo Cruz's Drinking the Sea and an opera tentatively titled The Balseros Project, whose libretto is being written by Cuban-American playwright Maria Irene Fornes.)

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