Exile on Eighth Street

A Little Havana cultural icon pays dearly for his principles

Until he was recently cast adrift and left artistically homeless, Alberto Sarrain had been a fixture on Little Havana's cultural scene for two decades. As founder and director of La Má Teodora theater company, he not only brought some of the best Spanish-language drama to South Florida but introduced the rest of the world to some of the finest in Cuban theater.

The bearded 50-year-old with a paunch and a penchant for wearing faded designer jeans and T-shirts has reached audiences in Cuba through underground videos of his local productions. But three months ago, when he was about to stage for Miami audiences yet another play by a well-known Cuban dramatist, something unprecedented happened: A long-time associate who for years had provided Sarrain and his actors with rehearsal space and an actual theater dropped the curtain on him by refusing to allow a Cuban play on his stage because it would violate Miami-Dade County's notorious Cuba ordinance.

Since then Sarrain has not had the basic tools he needs to pursue the avocation that has been his passion since childhood. So he remains in artistic limbo, a casualty in a political battle of the sort he thought he'd escaped when he left Cuba more than twenty years ago. And while the recent controversy is layered with enough subplots and ironies to make any playwright proud, for Sarrain they're merely scenes from a life as full of drama as anything he's ever put on stage.

Alberto Sarrain: Casualty in a political battle of the sort he thought he'd escaped when he left Cuba
Steve Satterwhite
Alberto Sarrain: Casualty in a political battle of the sort he thought he'd escaped when he left Cuba

As a boy growing up in Havana, Sarrain learned about opera and theater from his grandmother. But it was not until he saw a professional production of Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice at age fourteen that drama captured his imagination. Just two years later, however, his life would take a harrowing turn more surreal than any play could depict.

After the teen's telephone calls were monitored and his letters snatched by Cuban state security agents, a case was built against him. On September 23, 1966, he entered a Cuban jail for counterrevolutionary minors. They accused me of thinking of leaving the island, Sarrain says disdainfully. I was one of the lucky ones; I got a three-year sentence. There were others in the prison whose terms were indefinite.

Days after his incarceration Sarrain's mother, Maricusa Yaniz, died of a brain hemorrhage. I kept thinking my mother would get me out, he recalls. She had always gotten me out of trouble in the past. Knowing she couldn't save me was what killed her. It was a terrible, violent shock to confront that scene at that age. I was a family kid, after all. Two years passed before he was able to visit his home again, and then only on a five-day leave. Throughout his stint behind bars he labored among the jail's work crews, at times cutting cane, until his release at age nineteen.

Almost immediately upon his return to Havana the teen joined an amateur acting company. The group no longer exists, but Sarrain's participation in it rekindled his passion for the stage. Even as he studied for a degree in psychology at the University of Havana, he found himself irresistibly drawn to the theater. In 1975, while writing a magazine article about the attitude of youth toward drama, he came to know the members of Teatro Estudio, a professional company whose members were attempting to stage a work by Cuban playwright Abelardo Estorino. The play, Vagos Rumores (Obscure Rumors), is the tale of a nineteenth-century poet who dies and is brought back to life by one of his characters. Its themes -- trying to be creative while spiritually dead-- proved too controversial for Cuban officials, who shut down the play. (Not until 1985 was the work finally staged in a Cuban theater.)

In 1978 Sarrain, now a psychologist, became one of 3600 former political prisoners to be liberated as part of el dialogo, Castro's diplomatic campaign to soften Cuba's hard-line image and improve relations with the United States. Once in Spain Sarrain acquired an American visa and headed for South Florida. He lived, taught, and directed theater in Miami, New York City, and Venezuela for eight years before winning the first of two Fulbright scholarships. His project, A Cultural Bridge, examined the need for Cuba's exiles to reach out to other Latin-American cultures in order to avoid becoming ghettoized. In 1989 he won a second Fulbright to work in politically volatile Colombia. When the environment became too dangerous, he was forced to complete the scholarship in Chile.

Back in Miami in the fall of 1995, while working as a case manager for Catholic Community Services, Sarrain founded the nonprofit theater company La Má Teodora. He remains the group's president. The organization has two main functions: As an acting troupe it performs plays and gives stage readings in Little Havana and at theater festivals around the world. Under the umbrella of the company, Sarrain also publishes a magazine of dramatic arts that shares the organization's name. (The moniker comes from the title of a seventeenth-century musical composition widely regarded as the first Cuban son.) According to Sarrain both the theater company and the publication have a strong following in Cuba.

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