Vender Una Fantasia: An Interview With Alex Torra
Cuban President Raúl Castro’s second term is coming to a close and as such he’s preparing to vacate the office, making good on the two-term limit he set back in 2013. Though he intends to remain on the National Assembly and retain his position as First Secretary of the Communist Party of Cuba (the country’s only legal party), for the first time since 1959 someone other than a Castro will rule the island. On April 19th, Cuba’s National Assembly will undertake the historic vote to decide just who that someone will be. The following day, as the reality of that outcome is settling in with Cuban citizens, those of us here in the island’s not-so-friendly neighbor to the north will have a chance to settle into some theater seats and get an irreverent, pointed examination of our nations’ contentious relationship.
¡BIENVENIDOS BLANCOS! OR WELCOME WHITE PEOPLE! will receive its world premiere here at FringeArts on April 20th through the 28th. This new, original play from Team Sunshine Performance Corporation has been years in the making, and a true passion project for the ambitious company’s co-founder Alex Torra. Serving as the show’s lead artist and director, he was spurred to create the work in part because of his complicated relationship with his Cuban heritage. However, as the project has grown, it’s expanded its concerns far beyond the personal to encompass the long history of cultural exploitation and outsider ignorance Cuba has suffered through. Case in point, I’m embarrassed to admit just how recently I became aware that Cuba’s aforementioned vote was happening so soon. Live and learn.
Recently, we spoke with Torra to learn more about the origins of this bold, lively new play; the long journey to making it a reality, full of trips to Cuba and visa nightmares; and what audiences can expect to see onstage once the rumba beat starts.
FringeArts: Where did the title ¡BIENVENIDOS BLANCOS! OR WELCOME WHITE PEOPLE! arise from?
Alex Torra: Back in 2015, I had an opportunity to travel to Cuba for the first time. It was a super intense and difficult trip for me – for many Cuban-Americans, we only understand Cuba through the things our parents tell us and from photos or videos. To see it with your own eyes is a whole different experience.
I was really taken aback by how many of my interactions were tourism-based, and how much of the culture I was seeing was focused on getting (at that time) white tourists to have a great time and spend money. I kept having the strangest sensation – that Cuba was selling itself. I saw this phrase “Rentar Una Fantasia” on the back of a taxi. It clobbered me. Cuba has opened its doors to tourists, and now, tourism serves as one of the largest sources of revenue for the country. Cuba openly caters to tourists, and especially tourists from wealthy majority-white nations, to come and partake of the island and culture. It’s for the sake of survival, for sure, but it makes me deeply uncomfortable.
In my research, I discovered that this is a recurring theme in Cuban history. There is desire/repel quality to the way Cuba has dealt with foreigners. It goes as far back as La Conquista, where the Native people of the island, at some moments, welcomed Spanish strangers to the “New” World before they were enslaved, tortured, converted, and poisoned by European sicknesses. Then, in the 19th and 20th Centuries, Cubans, who had achieved independence from Spain had begun to welcome Americans. The Americans, in the early 20th century, used Cuba as a new marketplace and the island, especially Havana, became a kind of playground for the mafia, Hollywood, and tourists. When Castro came into power, many Cubans were happy to see the Americans go, but then the country became reliant on the Soviet Union. After the fall of Russian Communism, Cuba opened up to tourism for the first time in 40-50 years, welcoming European and Canadian tourists, and now, Cuba has opened up and is welcoming American tourists. It’s a powerful and complicated story, of both revolting against these outside forces and also welcoming them in.
FringeArts: How has your identity and relationship with your heritage informed the piece from its conception?
Alex Torra: It was the starting place for the project. We’ll see how much of this finds its way into the final performance, but a big complication for me is my white Latinoness. I present white (some say I “pass” as white), but I’m part of a Latinx minority group. As a first generation Cuban-American, I was encouraged to find success by my parents and community, and so I set out to do that. Along the way I deleted my Miami accent, I went to theatre schools that focused on American and Euro traditions of theatre where the work was made for primarily white audiences, and I worked hard to fit and succeed. I “whitened.”
As I’ve entered this particular stretch of life, and as the U.S. is so intensely and publicly wrestling with issues of race and class, I find myself confused. I sure pass as “white,” but I also don’t feel totally white. I find myself not quite fitting in in Anglo spaces. I quiet down, I mask emotions, I delete the Cubanness, except when it’s interesting or entertaining to people. I’m not a total fit for some of these spaces, but when I go to Miami or Havana, I don’t quite fit in anymore in Cuban spaces. I feel a little stuck.
I’ve had some close family members pass in the last few years. My Cubanness was passed along to me by my family, and as they leave us, I worry about the connection I have to the culture and the loss of it. It makes me fear that a disconnection from my “home” culture is inevitable. I find that really heartbreaking, and yet I don’t know what to do about it.
When I think about Cuba, I don’t think about the food and the music or the sandy beaches. I think about its history and its ideals, of the eternal fight for independence and sovereignty, and the ways the culture has lost that fight. I think about how beneath the charm and exuberance of the culture, there is a recurring theme of survival through submissiveness. It’s a complicated history, one that isn’t pretty, and I wrestle with the act of embracing that as my history. I want it and don’t want it at the same time. But I think that’s how that goes.
FringeArts: Who are the Cuban artists you’re collaborating with? And what effect has the current, uncertain political relationship between Cuba and the US had on these collaborations?
Alex Torra: The team includes Jorge Caballero, a Havana-based actor; Idalmis Garcia, a NYC-based actor who grew up in Cuba and came to the US about 4 years ago (a Cuban in transition); and Cheryl Zaldívar, our Havana-based assistant director. Also in the cast are Lori Felipe Barkin, a Cuban-American who was born in South Florida, and Benjamin Camp and Jenna Horton, two white Americans. It’s interesting how, with this group, you have the full spectrum of Cuban to American, the full spectrum of the Cuban-American experience.
I met Cheryl the first time I went to Havana, connected through a friend of my dads. We hit it off immediately, and Cheryl then set up a series of auditions in Havana in October 2016. That’s where we met Jorge. Cheryl was so integral to that process that it made perfect sense for her to come on to the project officially, in the role of Assistant Director. I then did some additional auditions in NYC in December 2016, and that’s when I met Idalmis.
The biggest issue in working with artists from Cuba has been visas. The US government shut down their embassy in Havana this past year because of unexplained sonic attacks on Americans who work there. The embassy manages the visas process for Cubans, so our Cuba-based collaborators have had to go embassies in other countries to get their visas. Cheryl went to London and got her visa from the embassy there, and Jorge went to Mexico to get his.
FringeArts: What are some of the ideas you’ve been discussing and exploring most in rehearsals?
So many things. The big themes are power, powerlessness, self-determination, and death. Also, how do we capture the whole of Cuban history in a tiny amount of time. Additionally, we’re doing stylistic research on Cuban performance forms that have been used to entertain “white” audiences. The Tropicana Floor Show, for example, is a world-renowned Las Vegas-style spectacle performed at Havana’s famed Tropicana club. Built in the 1950s to entertain American businessmen, tourists, and the mafia, Tropicana’s Floor Show is still performed as an excessive display of Cuba’s welcoming exoticism. There’s also El Baile Folklórico, a dance and music performance form rooted in the practices of the Afro-Cuban religion Santería. El Folklórico is rising as a form used to entertain tourists who seek out an “authentic” Cuban experience. Conversely, Jorge is a practitioner of Regla de Ocha, one of the many variations of the more commonly known religion of Santeria, and he and I have talked about how this an interesting topic to explore for the project.
We’re making scenes that are really theatrical and scenes that are super ordinary, much like the stuff we’ve done on The Sincerity Project, where the actors are just themselves in front of an audience.
FringeArts: What made it important for you that the piece be performed in Spanish?
Alex Torra: Well, there is no Spanish-language experimental theatre in Philadelphia. There isn’t much Spanish-language theatre at all, and I think that reveals that the dominant cultural dialogue is literally monolingual. That feels like a real crime to me, someone whose life has been experienced in two languages. Spanish is also such a huge part of my relationship with my Cubanness, and it’s also a place of tremendous discomfort for me. I am fluent… to a point. I don’t follow other Spanish speakers all the time and I have trouble with vocabulary and the communication of complicated thought. It’s a vulnerable place for me, so it felt like a smart choice to lean in to that.
The work of translating (from Spanish to English and vice versa) is really present in the rehearsal room. We’ve been playing with a system where an actor can speak into a microphone that’s connected to the earbud another actor is wearing, so we can feed each other lines. Often, those who only speak English are trying to speak Spanish, and vice versa. It’s been remarkable to be in a room that is bilingual, that slips into Spanish for long periods of time. The language of the room and the piece evokes the desire for the culture to not get erased, for the room and the project not to be colonized.
FringeArts: What are some of the ways you and the show’s creative team are working to connect with Latinx communities of Philadelphia?
Alex Torra: We’re working with Marangeli Mejia-Rabell our Community Liaison. We’re connecting to both Latinx cultural leaders and orgs. I’m essentially aiming to just sit down with folks and share the project and make a personal connection. I’m thinking of this process and this show as an introduction, as a way to build relationships.
One key relationship that’s been built is with Taller Puertorriqueño, where we did our work-in-progress showing last summer. They have become a really great partner for this project, and it’s been great to build a new relationship with them.
We’re also working with AfroTaino Productions who’ve curated a badass group of Latinx musicians, TIMBALONA. AfroTaino Productions has been doing great things to present amazing acts to a truly diverse community, and we’re thrilled to offer this show as another way to interact with a Latinx experience.
Lastly, we’re trying to connect with Latinx organzations and programs at local colleges and universities. Our audience has always skewed young, and because the piece is rooted in my particular questions, in a 1st generation Latino encountering his “home” culture, that felt like an experience that a lot of young Latinx individuals could relate to.
This all comes out of the impetus of wanting to be in relation with more of the Latinx community for me. As a theatre artist, I have found that a lot of my work and a lot of our audiences are primarily white. And my artistic collaborators and audience are my community, and it has felt strange that there have been so few Latinx individuals that populate it. So, I’m working to address that.
¡BIENVENIDOS BLANCOS! or WELCOME WHITE PEOPLE!
Team Sunshine Performance Corporation
April 18-19 (previews)
140 N. Columbus Boulevard
$20 general / $14 members (preview performances)
$29 general / $20.30 members
$15 student & 25-and-under
Intro and interview by Hugh Wilikofsky.