HAVANA TIMES, August 9 (IPS) — “When time starts to change, no one can stop it,” says a character in “El canto del pozo ciego” (Blind Mouth Singing), a play that is reviving the cultural exchange between Cuba and the United States, which has been virtually nonexistent over the past 10 years.
“The Cuban theatrical world wants cultural interaction with artists from the United States,” the play’s director, Jorge Luis Cacheiro, a Cuban-American who has been working to build cultural bridges between the two countries for a decade, told IPS via e-mail.
“U.S. foundations, cultural organizations and universities, as well as the theatre world, are now prepared to support cultural interaction with Cuba,” added Cacheiro, who traveled to the island for the play’s opening in July.
The summer season of performances of Blind Mouth Singing at the Rita Montaner theatre in Havana is the result of the first major theatrical cooperation arrangement between artists from this Caribbean island nation and the United States since diplomatic relations were broken off in 1961.
Over the following half decade or so, rapprochement in the field of the arts waxed and waned. Peak moments occurred during the U.S. administrations of Jimmy Carter (1977-1981) and Bill Clinton (1993-2001), while cultural exchanges hit bottom during the presidency of George W. Bush (2001-2009).
A closed door opens
“The door was never open before for theatrical collaboration,” Lilian Susel Zaldívar, a production adviser for Blind Mouth Singing, told IPS.
“It’s extremely important in social and political terms, quite apart from any artistic merit, that it has opened now,” she said.
The play was written by U.S. citizen José Ignacio Cortiñas, who was born in Miami of Cuban parents.
In Blind Mouth Singing, the teenager Reiderico is a character consumed by the search for his true identity, which sings to him from the bottom of a deep pit. Reiderico lives in a remote and secretive place, menaced by huge storms, but which no one can ever leave despite the longing of the characters to get beyond its horizon.
The play has been advertised merely as one of the Rita Montaner Theatre Company’s many productions. Only inside the program handed out to spectators does it say “this is a milestone in Cuban theatre,” as the first collaboration with the United States after nearly 50 years of conflict.
The project originated in 1999, and in 2002 Cacheiro and Gerardo Fulleda León, director of the Rita Montaner Theatre Company, got approval from the Culture Ministry for the play, which was inspired by the first novel of Reinaldo Arenas (1943-1990), a dissident Cuban writer and critic of contemporary U.S. theatre.
But the times were not propitious. “In the (George W.) Bush era, the flat answer was ‘No’. It was inconceivable that a U.S. play would be performed in Cuba,” Fulleda León told IPS in an interview. One of the main proponents of the exchange, he is now optimistic about future prospects for working with colleagues in the United States.
Numerous Cuban artists in US
The Havana opening of Blind Mouth Singing in early July coincided with a U.S. tour by the Cuban theatre companies Buendía and El Público, to perform at festivals in Miami and Chicago.
Also citing U.S. tours by Alicia Alonso, director of the Cuban National Ballet, and Cuban singer-songwriters Carlos Varela and Silvio Rodriguez, Fulleda León said “these are signs of a breach in the cultural blockade.”
Artists and representatives of the U.S. cultural world have also made trips to the island. Perhaps the most significant example were three concerts performed in early July by the Yale Alumni Chorus, made up of more than 200 graduates of the Ivy League university.
“I don’t know whether people in Cuba realize the mind-blowing significance of what is happening. Even here among the theatre company itself, there were reservations. It is supremely important, but this is not yet a felt reality,” Fulleda León complained, recalling that the production has hit more headlines in the foreign press than at home.
Blind Mouth Singing, the first theatrical production in Cuba involving organizations from both countries, went beyond exploiting the incipient openness between the two nations. It also fomented exchange between artists on both sides of the Florida straits, and opened the eyes of the Cuban public to the diversity of their diaspora in the United States.
“Between 2000 and 2008, U.S. institutions had their hands tied when it came to talking to Cuba about shared endeavors,” said Cacheiro.
Nevertheless, the project won the support of the Theatre Communications Group, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the Global Education Centre at Montclair State University in New Jersey, as well as Cuban institutions like the Rita Montaner Theatre Company, the National Council for Scenic Arts and the Higher Institute of Art (ISA).
In Fulleda León’s view, there are aspects that make the current production unique: “The playwright (Cortiñas) is a Miami-born U.S. citizen, of Cuban parents, who has worked not in Miami but in New York. And the play’s director (Cacheira) was born in Havana but moved to the U.S. when he was four, is now a theatre professor at a U.S. university and produces plays on Broadway.”