My Very Old Havana
Change is a funny thing. Some of it is dramatic, embodied in single moments -- a wedding, a birth, a terrorist attack. But a whole lot of change happens incrementally, so slowly that it isn't noticed until after the fact. These thoughts may come to mind when contemplating the Coconut Grove Playhouse revival of Rum & Coke, Carmen Pelaez's heartfelt exploration of her Cuban-American roots and the contradictions therein. The show ran in Miami in 1998 to favorable reviews. Its assets haven't changed, but the community context sure has -- and therein lies a tale.
Pelaez's one-woman show tracks the life of her alter ego, Camilla, a bubbly, Rubens-esque Cuban American with a wry sense of humor. She may be an expert at mimicking the runway struts of supermodels, but she's largely clueless about her own identity. Then a series of encounters with friends and relatives begins to change her. A girlfriend tells of a romantic encounter at a club that turns into a humiliating nightmare. Camilla's abuela, a stiff-backed old-timer, remembers the last flight out of Cuba as Castro took over, and though it has been well over 40 years since, the pain remains. "Talking about it doesn't help," she growls. "I'm not that modern." Camilla decides to travel to Cuba to find out more about this mysterious island she doesn't know. In Havana, Camilla meets a wizened relative, a disillusioned hooker, and a former Tropicana headliner now resigned to cleaning restrooms while dreaming of a comeback. Through these encounters, Camilla begins to connect with the everyday lives of the Cuban people -- on the island and in exile --and in these she sees a true beauty more compelling than what is found on a fashion runway.
The thematic connection of these encounters isn't particularly sound, but each individual episode certainly has emotional impact. Pelaez wrote and directed Rum & Coke as well as performing it. She's a skilled storyteller. Each vignette offers humor, then pivots on a surprise that often results in heartache. But the production could and should be better. As a performer, Pelaez is appealing if not riveting, and some of her acting tends toward the declamatory. Her decision to direct herself appears the likely cause. The piece could benefit from an outside perspective. Staging, verbal rhythms, and pacing are uniform throughout the intermissionless show, and its punch suffers. Nevertheless Rum & Coke is an effective, engaging piece. Pelaez's use of overhead projections featuring photos of relatives is particularly poignant.
The regular Playhouse production team provides low-key support. Steve Lambert's simple set, a series of projection panels and some mismatched wooden chairs, befits the show's style. Eric Nelson opts for a similar approach to his lighting design, though the use of general lighting, without much detail or shadowing, lacks variety in a show that could use more of it. Steve Shapiro's sound design, deliberately wispy and evocative, adds romance and mood.
Rum & Coke is part of a war over the narrative of the Cuban revolution, a struggle that the exile community has largely won. Back when Castro came to power, el exilio suffered not only the injury of loss but the insult of mischaracterization. The Castro regime was touted by the radical chic as a pinnacle of socialist progress, Che Guevara became a T-shirt icon, and the exiles were marginalized as spoiled malcontents. Over the years, however, exiled writers have regained narrative supremacy, humanizing and dignifying the exile experience in plays and novels while Castro's image has tarnished.
But while Rum & Coke has an important tale to tell, it has less impact than it did in its first run here in 1998, simply because the heartache of the Cuban-exile experience has been exposed so voluminously in recent years. Eduardo Machado's Once Removed centered on los exilios in America. Nilo Cruz's Hortensia and the Museum of Dreams traced the return of Cuban Americans to Castro's Cuba, as did Rafael Lima's devastating video documentary El Presidio. The Boys of Mariel centered on the gay experience.
Meanwhile the politics and demographics of South Florida have been changing, and with that change there has been a changing audience for stories of exile. The once-solid Cuban-exile bloc is now giving way to a major influx of South and Central Americans (many with their own exile narratives), a steady flow of Anglos, and a new kind of Cuban exile, lacking the roots and solidarity of the older, established Cubanos. All of this makes for a very fluid mix in South Florida and a sociopolitical situation far different from five or six years ago.
The struggle over the Cuban narrative appears to have been settled. But in this victory comes crisis. Has the exile perspective stalled? In play after play, Cuban writers have turned to the past. Where are the narratives about Cuba's future? What will happen when the Castro regime falls? What is in store for the Cuban people? True democracy? Corporate colonialism? Surely there are chapters to be written in the Cuban narrative other than merely nostalgia and regret.
Erratum: In last issue's column, I cited Carol Burnett and Kathy Bates as the original performers of Miss Hannigan in Annie. In fact, Dorothy Loudon originated the role on Broadway. I should have said that Burnett and Bates played Hannigan in the motion picture and television versions of the show.
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