HAVANA TIMES — After seeing renowned Cuban actress Raquel Revuelta perform on stage, a little girl decided what her profession would be. However, it would be years before she could take her first steps in that direction: she was poor and black.
After the triumph of the revolution, when she was no longer a little girl but a woman over thirty, she was able to enroll in an acting course. With much work and sacrifice, she would become one of the greats of the Cuban stage.
That is the story of actress Hilda Oates (1925-2014), as told by Regino Oliver’s Maria Antonia soy yo (“I Am Maria Antonia”), a 30-minute documentary released in 2014.The director uses interviews with Hilda and playwrights, directors and actresses who had the opportunity to work with her, such as Eugenio Hernandez, Jose Ramon Viga and Paula Ali. All describe her as an exceptional actress with a powerful stage presence and perfect pronunciation, capable of taking on a lead and secondary role with the same degree of commitment and professionalism. “She wasn’t thinking about herself, she was always thinking about the play,” they tell us.
Despite her talent, Oates was long a victim of the racism that survived in the revolutionary society that had announced its eradication. In most of the archive photos of her performances, Hilda is playing a slave, a servant or run-away. This is corroborated by the interviewees, who tell us how she was typecast this way – until she got the chance to play Maria Antonia, under the direction of Roberto Blanco.
If there’d been any doubts regarding her stature as an actress, these were dispelled with her portrayal of this character, of whom she would say: “I am Maria Antonia.” The play launched her career in Cuba and dazzled audiences abroad.
Hilda Oates also played characters in works by Federico Garcia Lorca. She took on the role of Poncia in La Casa de Bernarda Alba (“The Home of Bernarda Alba”), and the mother in Bodas de Sangre (“Blood Weddings”). She was given the latter role thanks to the director Berta Martinez, who dared to challenge racial prejudices and take the play to Portugal, with Oates as the mother. There, critics spoke not of the actress’ skin color, but of her powerful performance on stage.
Despite having been granted the 2004 National Theater Award and being considered an emeritus artist by the Association of Cuban Writers and Artists (UNEAC), Hilda Oates is practically unknown to my generation and younger ones (and even many of our elders). She would have been unknown to me as well, had I not been a (dreadful) amateur actress during my teen years and had Hilda Oates not been paid tribute to at one of the Municipal Monologue Festivals held in my neighborhood.
It was 1991. I was only 15 and was just beginning to go see plays at the theater. Her face was unknown to me. The audience, mostly made up of people who were older than me and attended the theater more regularly, began applauding before she came on stage. To them she was none other than Maria Antonia herself.
Television has a big say in an actor’s popularity. Unfortunately, Hilda Oates was not a television actress. After seeing the documentary, I tried to find more information about her, but her name does not show up on Wikipedia.
Many of us would not have seen the documentary had it not been screened along with the 2015 Oscar-winning Polish film Ida at Havana’s La Rampa theater.
Maria Antonia soy yo is a fairly conventional documentary. It is evident the director was unable to get his hands on archival images of some of the plays where Hilda Oates acted and had to resort to images from more recent plays. We see her on her armchair, old and retired, reciting her characters’ line from memory. Those of us who didn’t get a chance to see her act still get a sense of the kind of actress she was.
Perhaps the documentary won’t prompt many debates or receive awards (I don’t think either were the director’s aims). Its chief virtue, and we must be grateful to Regino Oliver for this, is reminding us, and exposing many of us, to the work of a legend of the Cuban stage.