Theater

At Gablestage, Actor Ruben Rabasa Is Finally in the Spotlight

Ruben Rabasa moves from his usual sidekick/supporting roles into the spotlight as the star of Rubenology: The Making of an American Legend.
Ruben Rabasa moves from his usual sidekick/supporting roles into the spotlight as the star of Rubenology: The Making of an American Legend. Photo courtesy of Abre Camino Collective
Unless you really know the Cuban-American talent pool, Ruben Rabasa’s name may not ring a bell, despite his many decades of success as an actor.

Rabasa has more than 70 film and television credits (his latest is as Tio Walter in the Miami-set Father of the Bride remake). His theater experience in Spanish and English stretches over more than six decades.

He’s also a standup comedian, an irresistible storyteller, and a man who performed Spanish street theater in New York while taking opera lessons at Carnegie Hall. In 2019, he became a meme as the eccentric focus group guy from Tim Robinson’s Netflix comedy series I Think You Should Leave.

Now, at 84, Rabasa is moving from his usual sidekick/supporting roles into the spotlight as the star of Rubenology: The Making of an American Legend, a show that explores both his Cuban backstory and his life as a proud American. The world premiere coproduction from the Abre Camino Collective and GableStage, billed as a special event, has a 12-performance run from Thursday, July 14, through Sunday, July 31.

Rubenology has its roots in the immersive Miami megahit Amparo, which opened in 2019 and ran for months in a dramatically reimagined old home not far from the Arsht Center. Rabasa wasn’t part of the original cast, but he went into the show a month after opening and stayed for seven months. Playing Miguel, the exiled former emcee of Havana’s Club Náutico, he quickly formed a lasting bond with playwright Vanessa Garcia and director Victoria Collado, the women behind Abre Camino.

Before long, the life stories Rabasa would share with Garcia, Collado, and Robby Ramos, the actor who played his grandson in Amparo, got the Abre Camino partners thinking.

“We’re obsessed with preserving Cuban and Cuban-American stories,” Collado says. “It felt like we needed to do this, like a responsibility... Robby had recently lost his grandfather, I had lost mine, and Vanessa was very close to hers (he passed away on her birthday in 2021). Ruben has this ability, with those who love him, to make them family... During Amparo, I felt like I’d known him all my life. It’s impossible not to love Ruben.”

In January 2020, before the pandemic began, Rabasa appeared as Manolito in the Miami New Drama’s world premiere of The Cubans by Michael Leon. After the world shut down, Rabasa, Garcia, and Collado had time to focus on devising Rubenology.

Transforming memories into a compelling, engaging solo show is, however, anything but simple.

“We started over two years ago, with Robby and me gathering Ruben’s stories. I’d press ‘record’ on my iPhone, and Ruben would talk for hours in Spanish,” Garcia says. “After we got a week’s worth of interviews, I transcribed them, then later translated them into English.”

Rabasa left Fulgencio Batista’s Cuba with his mother and brother in 1955 when he was 17. They arrived from their tropical homeland in the dead of winter, and he was not smitten.

“My mom lived at 135th and Broadway, where the subway came out. It was very cold. I thought, ‘Oh my God, is this hell?’ I thought I was inside of a refrigerator,” Rabasa recalls.

His early days of working as a busboy and struggling to learn English are in the show. So is the tale of how he worked a santero to get a bad-luck dead man off his back. So are funny, touching stories about his beloved mother — she, like his other relatives, is gone now.

Selecting and honing those stories wasn’t easy. Rabasa and Garcia didn’t always agree.
click to enlarge
Rubenology has its roots in the immersive Miami hit Amparo.
Photo courtesy of Abre Camino Collective
“Some stuff we thought was important, but he didn’t want to tell those stories. We’d go back and forth. We’d have arguments. There was always a push-pull between English and Spanish, between generations and what happens in a theater,” says Garcia, who was also mindful of choosing English words that are easier for Rubasa to pronounce.

After the creators tested material with pandemic-era digital shorts in different cinematic styles on IGTV (now Instagram Video) and YouTube, Rubenology has emerged as a multimedia piece, one that calls attention to its own theatricality; as Collado describes it, “Ruben exposes the process.”

Garcia and Collado appear in videos, interacting with the live Rabasa and keeping the show going when he briefly leaves the stage. A stagehand helps ready him, onstage, for his final story. The structure is, says Garcia, both “practical and logistical. He’s 84. We had to give him some breaks.”

“He’s an 84-year-old actor who makes you feel like he’s 24. He challenges himself,” Collado observes.

After his years in New York, Rabasa lived in Miami for a time, appearing in the movies Guaguasi and Amigos (and others), five episodes of Miami Vice, 39 episodes of the Spanish-language series Corte Tropical and many more. After he moved to California, his movie and TV resume grew, with film work alongside Andy Garcia, Marisa Tomei, Colin Firth, Adam Sandler, Gloria Estefan, and others. But when Amparo came calling, he gladly came back to Miami and stayed

“The majority of Spanish-speaking actors in California are Mexican, and directors would want me to sound Mexican. I just want to be me,” he says.

Garcia notes, “He’s been trying to tell his story forever. But people kept getting in the way. We thought, ‘How do we stop people from taking the mic away from him?’ ”

After he established his strong connection with Collado and Garcia — Rubasa calls them “my new family” — he got the chance to put his life onstage. His play is both serious and funny, and he believes the latter is harder to pull off.

“It’s more difficult to make people laugh. You have to have the right timing,” he says.

He would love to do a version of Rubenology in Spanish — “it would be easier,” he says with a smile — but looks forward to its debut in English and sharing his life journey so far.

“In the beginning, it was difficult, but then I started loving New York and freedom,” he says. “I get to tell about my experiences in the United States and how I grew as a human being.”

Garcia — and Rabasa as well — would love it if Rubenology could help transform the actor from a well-known supporting player to a leading man. Whatever happens, the playwright is happy to be bringing some long-overdue focus to the resonant life of a man brimming with stories.

“Ruben has been busy paving the road,” she says. “There is only one Ruben.”

– Christine Dolen, ArtburstMiami.com

Rubenology: The Making of an American Legend. Thursday, July 14, through Sunday, July 31, at GableStage, 1200 Anastasia Ave., Coral Gables; 305-445-1119; gablestage.org. Tickets cost $20 to $45.
KEEP MIAMI NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Miami New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Miami, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
ArtburstMiami.com is a nonprofit source of theater, dance, visual arts, music, and performing arts news.