Exile on Eighth Street

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

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.

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.  

Today Sarrain earns his daily bread as a public-assistance specialist for the state's Department of Children and Families, but drama is still his first love. In his twenty years of experience he has produced 36 plays. About 8 of those have been written by Cubans living in Cuba; two or three works were created by exile playwrights. “I have read probably all the works written by playwrights in the exile community, but there is a tendency toward realism I find too rigid,” he explains. “I prefer more expressive pieces, works that speak about reality in metaphorical terms. Each year I read about 100 manuscripts, and how I choose a work is an entirely magical thing. It depends on the mood you're in and the artists you have available.”

In December of last year Abelardo Estorino, author of Obscure Rumors, turned up in Miami on a family visit. Sarrain, who had first met the playwright years earlier in Havana, was hard at work during the evenings, preparing for an upcoming production. He invited Estorino to a rehearsal, and the two drove to the Manuel Artime Theater on SW First Street in Little Havana.

Since founding La Má Teodora five years ago, Sarrain has collaborated with Creation Arts Center, a nonprofit group that leases the Artime Theater from the City of Miami and stages theater productions and literary workshops. In exchange for half the box-office proceeds, the cultural group's director, Pedro Pablo Peña, has allowed Sarrain to use the Artime's facilities.

As Sarrain and Estorino drove into the theater complex's parking lot last December, they encountered Peña, who asked the playwright in a friendly manner: “When are we going to do one of your works?” Not long afterward Sarrain took up his business partner on that comment and began rehearsals for Obscure Rumors, the very play that had been banned in Havana 25 years earlier.

It was about this time that Sarrain came to understand the intricacies of Miami-Dade County's Cuba ordinance and its implications for his artistic work. (The law prohibits the county from funding any organization that has ties to Cuba, directly or indirectly. La Má Teodora has received modest grants the past two years.) After being interviewed by New Times about the subject, the director decided to join a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union challenging the ordinance. “I saw that the county's laws superceded the federal government's, and I recognized that that was immoral,” he recalls. “The big companies like AT&T, American Airlines, and Carnival are all doing business with Cuba, and they don't sign the affidavit [ensuring compliance with the law]; only the little shits who have to beg for $9000 have to sign it. There is a double standard being applied and underlying it is fear.” (On June 19 the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional a similar law in Massachusetts. That ruling could nullify Miami-Dade's ordinance.)

Publicity about the ACLU lawsuit and Sarrain's part in it cast a reflected light on Peña, whose prominent role in the burgeoning Little Havana arts scene raised the stakes for any action he might take in response. Coincidentally he was on the verge of acquiring a new space for his Creation Arts Center projects -- an ample studio across the street from the recently renovated Tower Theater -- and he had just been appointed by city commissioners to Miami's newly created Board of Culture and Fine Arts.

One evening in mid-March, Sarrain and Peña met again at the Manuel Artime Theater. Sarrain was there to continue rehearsals of Estorino's play, but Peña confronted him and issued an ultimatum: He could continue to rehearse there, but he couldn't use the Artime Theater to present the drama. “I told him we can't do this, that I am accountable to the law, and the county law is real,” Peña recounts. “I respect his ideas and his freedom to express them, but by the same token I have a right to say yes or no, especially when a majority of the county's taxpayers are against such a work.”

As for his earlier interest in seeing one of Abelardo Estorino's plays on the Artime stage, Peña explains with exasperation: “I made that suggestion assuming Estorino was planning to stay in Miami!”

Regardless of the recent Supreme Court ruling, Peña remains steadfast in his opposition to staging the works of Cubans still living on the island. “When exile writers are free to perform their works in Cuba, then maybe I will permit the performance of Cuban playwrights in my space,” he says. “Furthermore the absence [at the Artime] of works by Cubans living on the island will not mean an end to Cuban theater in Little Havana.”  

Sarrain had no other theater available, so he canceled rehearsals and dropped plans to produce Obscure Rumors. Though he hasn't spoken to Peña since their confrontation, Sarrain professes sympathy for his former colleague. “We can't all be heroes and martyrs,” he notes. “[Peña's] position is reasonable. He's afraid to lose his county subsidy. What isn't reasonable is that the county government puts him in a position to be fearful.”

Since leaving the Artime, Sarrain and La Má Teodora have been temporarily disoriented. The handful of actors he uses are strictly volunteers. Like Sarrain himself, they all hold down other jobs and so are connected only when they are working on a project. “In truth I don't know what we are going to do next,” Sarrain says, “but no one is afraid, and no one thinks we should stop doing what we are doing.”

The Miami Light Project, another arts group that joined the ACLU lawsuit, offered Sarrain space in its Biscayne Boulevard office, but the director doesn't want to leave Little Havana and the cultural vanguard in which he is a key player. So he is searching for something affordable in the neighborhood. “Part of the role of an artist is to be a social provocateur,” he remarks, “so I'm pleased to be participating in a historic movement in Cuban theater. This art movement in Little Havana has developed because the Cold War has ended. I understand that all the forces of reconciliation have yet to emerge, but one has to begin to understand the individual apart from the government in Cuba. You can't say that when he becomes an exile tomorrow he's good, and today when he's not, he's bad. For exile status to be the measure of good or bad is unacceptable.”

Sponsor Content


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >