In the shadows of the monumental cultural institution that is the Adrienne Arsht Center, playwright Michael Leon sits perfectly poised and completely unintimidated. He’s ready to change up the face of the theater world with one that looks more like his own. Leon’s new play, The Cubans, is set to make its world premiere at the Colony Theatre courtesy of Miami New Drama later this month.
His director, Victoria Collado, sits crosslegged on the pavement next to Leon. The two have known each other for years, but The Cubans marks the first time they've worked together as director and playwright.
Leon and Collado were born and raised in Miami and studied theater at Florida International University, a commonality that enhances their partnership. The theater kids found themselves living in New York City in the 2010s and met through mutual friends.
Collado describes the meet-cute as kismet. “It felt like I had known him since I was a kid,” she says. “When we get to work together, it’s like two nerdy 6-year-olds trying to put on a living-room play for our parents.” She pauses. “That’s essentially what The Cubans is — a living-room play, but with a budget!”
The story of The Cubans is a narrative to which many Miamians can relate. The premise revolves around a 30-something Cuban-American, Christina, who comes home to Miami for a family celebration and finds herself clashing with her overbearing mother.
“It’s about a Cuban-American family and how they deal with their differences, especially intergenerational differences,” the show's writer explains. “It deals with how a first-generation American has to grapple with their identity of being a Cuban-American and how you fall in the middle.”
The Cubans will also explore the notion of tradition — how familial expectations are passed on from generation to generation, especially from a lineage of exiles.
“It’s really about that clash you have between two generations,” Leon says.
He was inspired to tell this story — his story — after seeing a Broadway show that included a large cast of Latino actors. The show did not live up to his expectations. “I left so deflated from the whole experience,” Leon says. “I didn’t feel the story was true to us, to Latinos. It felt more like it was a story tailored for a white audience.”
That night, with a bellyful of fire, he sat down and began writing.
It was 2016, and at the time, Leon was grappling with his identity as a Cuban-American while living in New York City. He wrote many versions of The Cubans before sharing it with his director friend, Collado. The day after Thanksgiving that year, the two gathered a group of their friends in Collado’s modest Harlem apartment and read the first draft together.
“One of the things we said that night was that we needed to do this play in Miami,” Collado says. “It’s been sort of like a dream come true that Miami New Drama gave us a home for this show... The play is built for the people who live here.”
In addition to the story's Miami setting and many of the actors' local ties, the show was mostly developed in the Magic City, Collado explains. The two first workshopped The Cubans at their alma mater, FIU, in 2017 and at Miami New Drama in 2018.
Although it might not be obvious that the story takes place in 2016, the year it was written, Collado says it’s a pertinent piece of information. “I think what’s important about 2016 is what things were opening and what things were closing," she says. “It was such a particular moment in our history and its effect on the Cuban-American home.”
Collado says the importance of understanding one another is The Cubans' most important theme. Fresh off directing the successful The Amparo Experience, which ran seven months and also told a story familiar to Cuban-Americans in Miami, she approached her work on The Cubans with a slightly different viewpoint from that of her previous work.
The first time the director read the script, she says, it was the first time she could relate wholeheartedly to the characters on the page. “The main character, Christy, is asking the same questions I’m asking. Her parents are my parents; her Tío Pepe, I mean, I literally have a Tío Pepe!”
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Collado recalls the first time her mother sat in for a rehearsal. Like a good Cuban parent, she had some notes for her daughter. When the scene was done and before she delivered her feedback, Collado's mother said, “I don’t know if it’s because it’s the first time that I see myself onstage, but...”
Collado and Leon hope The Cubans will resonate with Miami audiences. It’s an opportunity for both generations — parent and child — to see themselves onstage and forge a connection with the characters.
“I’m hoping that our people feel represented,” Collado says, “and that it’ll get the generations talking to each other more.”
The Cubans. January 23 through February 16 at the Colony Theatre, 1040 Lincoln Rd., Miami Beach. Tickets cost $39 to $65 via miaminewdrama.org.