Days days days. Another Saturday gone, as I sit down to update this journal, which is becoming a love-hate relationship. I hate that it has become mandatory, something that I obligate myself to do because, well, it might be worth reading later, it might be worth remember. I love it because it is just that, something that might be worth reading and remembering. I like to remember back over my recent past and try to capture it just right, while I still can recall how it feels, how it felt.
To give a pointless update from my last entry, I did end up breaking down and buying that 2-hour internet card. I figured after all that writing and time I might as well post. I also didn’t want to have to return that following day to send out the messages I had intended to send. It was so very difficult to walk back into the IT office and hand over those CUCs that I so desperately wanted to keep in my pocket in protestation. But alas!
On Tuesday I passed my morning in regular routine (which, I’ve been thinking and hoping that I will integrate into my summer life and beyond, if at all feasible), before my meeting with Celia. We were scheduled to sit in on another María Antonia rehearsal that afternoon, and, since Teatro Caribe is closer to my home than her’s, Celia had planned to come to Paseo and Calle 27 around 1:15. Due to a hold up at a meeting at the Ministry of Culture, she didn’t arrive until about an hour later (this had made me very antsy), so we hopped a cab passed the Plaza de la Revolución and were dropped off near the theater.
Tuesday’s rehearsal differed from the previous one that I had seen in that they weren’t running the entire show but working through problem spots. The show premiers next Friday night, and it seems as if Eugenio is still not satisfied with the final scenes, which they were running over and over again. Most of the main parts are double cast, so the player on stage often switched in and out, acting as both actors and directors to their counterparts, but all working with Eugenio and the assistant director, Roberto. Eugenio (who is well into his 70s) would often jump out of his seat, run onstage, and show the actors the quality of movement and voice that he wanted to see. This happened most frequently during the scene in which María Antonia is stabbed by a wronged lover and continues to dance through the pain of her fatal wound (sorry for ruining any suspense, but if you see any part of the play its pretty clear this girl’s working towards an epic death scene from the get-go). Eugenio would run, leap, yell around the stage, then gather his actors and speak in hushed tones to them about the importance of the scene and his specific direction. It is the most active I’ve ever seen anyone in this age range. It is amazing, aside from the fact that he is just a very talented and intuitive director. Throughout the whole business I circled around the stage with my small camera, hoping to death that I wasn’t getting in the way or throwing anybody off game.
Their rehearsal began to break off, and Celia wrangled the assistant director towards me for an interview—
Let me pause here for a moment to reiterate a point that I don’t think I’ve made enough in this journal: Celia is absolutely wonderful. She is smart, sweet, aggressive (in the most helpful and persuasive way possible), supportive…she’s just the best. The best thing is I can tell she sincerely cares about my project and my work over this semester, she isn’t merely participating because it is her current job. As of right now, she is planning on being at Hampshire next semester (her husband is going to be a visiting professor), and I am endlessly happy that I will be able to work with her (and just see her) passed this isolated experience.
So, now that I’ve gloated about my fantastic luck in choice of tutor, back to what I was saying. I sat down with Roberto and began what was my first real (sit down) interview for my final project. It didn’t go nearly as bad as I thought it would. Actually, I think it went really well. I had my questions all written out but I had worked through them enough times that I only used them as a guide and didn’t hide behind my notebook – I made it conversational. And my Spanish wasn’t terrible. And I riffed. And I clarified. Eye contact. Eye contact was made. His answers were articulate and the lighting was great (hopefully the sound will be ok), and before I knew it we were wrapping it up. Celia had run away halfway through my interview (she had stationed herself facing both me and Roberto, as a kind of audience to our conversation) to hunt down one of the lead actors in the play. By the time Roberto vacated his seat across from me, Celia was guiding the actor right into it (Arby? I’m pretty sure his name is Arby, I should really know this, its slightly embarrassing, let’s just call him Arby and I’ll verify this in my next post). She smiled, proud that she was bringing in more subjects for my project.
Arby plays María Antonia’s sometimes-lover/employer? (she’s a prostitute), Julian, a champion boxer that provides her male foil in the show, who she ultimately ends up poisoning (there’s a lot of murdering of ex-lovers going on). That’s an awful sentence structure but I’m going to keep writing instead of correcting it. Arby gave me more great answers, in-depth and eloquent, addressing all points that I hoped my questions would gather. Again, I was having a very productive day working on my final project. By the time we wrapped up, Eugenio had already ducked out of the building so my main interview with him was again postponed. By the time I finally end up talking to him, I’m going to be ridiculously prepared. Since it seemed like my work for the day was as over as rehearsal, Celia and I cut through the box office and out of the building with Roberto and Arby, and I continued my conversation with him that had been spurred by our interview.
While I couldn’t film our talk, it was extremely interesting and thought-provoking, giving me my first real insight into the life of a professional actor in Cuba. Arby talked about his relationship with acting, with Teatro Caribe, with cinema. He talked about the acting style and how sometimes he wished it were different, less performative and more “real”. He talked about working with Eugenio, and how important and helpful it is to work with a director who has also written and acted. I continued to realize that some things were passed translation, theater being one of them; his concerns were my concerns.
The four of us reached the intersection where I had to split off and walk back to Paseo, Arby offered to walk me back, Celia thanked him for his chivalry and I parted ways with Celia and Roberto. Over the half hour walk I learned more about Arby’s experiences in Cuban theater and I exhausted my Spanish telling him about my experiences in North American theater. I asked him about his interest in traveling – its very difficult for Cubans to leave the country, but most often happens in the professions of the arts when they are invited to perform/work somewhere else. He seemed very passionate about visiting the US and seeing as much theater as possible, seemingly upset that he was “cut off” from a major working history of drama.
We also talked about the fact that I haven’t been out to a lot of clubs to hear and dance to the music – he informed me (and I know, quite validly) that I haven’t experienced Cuba until I’ve done this. He invited me, Andrew, and anyone else within out group to join him at a few of his favorite salsa clubs whenever we had time on the weekends. As we got to Paseo, we exchanged emails and bid adieu (or ciao). I was happy that I had made a new friend, as after-school-special as that sounds.
That was the major news of the day, at least the most worthwhile thing to write about. The other big event of the day was that I finished writing my first full essay in Spanish! Its difficult to write with gusto about the composition of a paper, but don’t let my brevity fool you – this was a big moment for me. While it was far from my best work in English, I believe I adequately got my point across and, more than anything, I tried. We had the option of writing in English or Spanish, and I opted for Spanish. Because I had to prove to myself that I could do it. We also have a long and short paper assigned for this class (one due this past week, the other due as our final in April), which we could choose to tackle in whichever order. And I wrote the longer one. Huzzah. Soy una campeon.
Wednesday, for me, passed without major incidence. I had my morning routine. I had my Literature class (I understood more Spanish again this week), I returned home for dinner. But Andrew and Oskar had some major excitement.
Before I go any further, I’m putting in a word for my father, who warns me every time he talks to me for me and Andrew to “avoid getting political, avoid the law.” Dad: Andrew didn’t do anything wrong, he didn’t do anything overtly political… ok? Ok. I’m sure that he’ll post something about his experience at some point that will further clarify this. Actually, I’m not sure, but I’m going to bother him to do it because I contribute way more to this blog than he does and its high time he posted!
So, Andrew and Oskar had set out with Gangy and the driver at Casa Silvia (Silvia’s son), Ale, to go to a Haitian shantytown outside of Habana proper. It is the same place they had visited a few weeks ago for rara performances one Sunday afternoon: Oskar was returning to film and Andrew was returning in hopes of drumming once again with some of the citizens. As they were finishing up their visit and returning to their car, they noticed a motorcycle cop talking to Ale about why he was here. Oskar showing up with his camera didn’t help the situation much. He was irritated that students (moreover American students) were filming this illegal shantytown.
Yes, illegal, its technically not supposed to be there, but groups of 200-300 Cubans (in this case, Haitian Cubans) often set up permanent camps in open areas without permission from the state. They are rarely broken up because then it becomes a problem as to where to house them. These towns are often extremely poor, with many of their citizens relying on odd jobs and gathering of raw materials to sell in order to make end’s meat.
Oskar was there filming, which is technically ok but the police officer decided he wanted to take the four of them to the police station anyway, so it was off to the Cuban police station for Andrew and Oskar. As the motorcycle guided their car to the station, Oskar and Andrew plotted about the fate of that day’s footage, with Oskar ultimately slipping his videotape out of the camera and into an empty cigarette pack. Like a boss.
They were held at the police station for about 45 minutes, with their passports taken and Gangy pulled outside for questioning. Eventually, they verified that yes, they were UNEAC and yes, what they were doing was legitimate and ok, and with an apology sent out to our program, they were released. But I guess technically, they were arrested in Cuba. But they did nothing wrong and are not in any way facing any future trouble, Dad. Ok, Dad?
Another routine Thursday morning followed by Spanish class (which has now been reduced to 2 hours per class as opposed to the three-hour classes that occurred in February.
At an early dinner before our Thursday night seminar, Baby told me that Celia had called earlier in the day while I was in class. While I was unable to take the call, Baby and Celia had a short conversation, which seemingly included talking about me. Baby kindly and eagerly informed me that Celia is very impressed with the work that I’ve been doing thus far, that I’m very intuitive and intelligent, and that she’s excited to see my final project come together. Baby beamed and said something along the lines of “that’s my girl”. It made my day to hear that I was getting positive feedback about my project, that someone had faith in the hard work that I was doing here.
Half an hour later at Casa Silvia, it was my turn to present my project work to the rest of the students. It was helpful if for no other reason than it allowed me to collect all the threads of my work and try to make sense of where I was going next. I realized just how much time I had put into this, how much footage I had already collected, how far I had already come. I poured myself a Cuba Libre after my presentation. I deserved it.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean to brag or gloat. My project is far from complete, and still won’t be complete by the end of April, I’m sure. But it just feels so good, after so much anxiety, after so much struggling to find myself a place here, to see my work progressing towards something real and worthwhile.
When I got home 4 hours later, Baby informed me that Celia had called again, switching our meeting time from 9:30 in the morning to 3:00 in the afternoon. She told me to bring any and all of my filming equipment I had tomorrow, she made it sound as if something big were going to happen. I felt excited instead of nervous.
Friday morning came and went, and before I knew it I was walking over to Celia’s. When I got there she informed me we were going to Playa (the neighborhood, not the beach) to interview Hilda Oates, the first actress to play María Antonia in the original premier. I reorganized my interview questions to make them relevant to her work, then it was time to head off.
After a peso cab ride and a short walk, we were at Hilda’s apartment complex. She was waiting for us, her door open and sitting in a large chair – sitting like a queen. Hilda is 86 years old.
As she tried to quiet her puppy, Wendy, so that we could conduct the interview, I got to look around her apartment. The far wall was covered in frames. A few were pictures of her on stage when she was younger, a beautiful Afro-Cuban woman, always in poses that emoted strength, independence and sass. But most of the wall was covered in certificates and awards, declaring Hilda one of the best actresses in the country. Certificates from theaters across the state, from UNEAC, the Ministry of Culture and there, in the middle of it all, was her Premio Naciónal Award from 2005, the highest honor for a theater maker in Cuba. Only one is awarded each year. Eugenio has one too.
Deciding that there was no use trying to calm her dog, Hilda attempted to keep Wendy in her lap and begin the interview. This only lasted a short while, since the dog was struggling against her with ferocity as she tried to answer questions about her career in theater. Most of my footage has Wendy jumping up at Hilda, running over the couches, basically going crazy, which is a great contrast to Hilda’s responses. For Hilda’s own part, she would stretch her answers as far as they would go, beginning to go off on tangents, tell other stories of her adventures in theater. I probably asked her only 4 or 5 questions over the course of 2 and a half hours. She also performed parts of her María Antonia monologues for me (do I really have that on camera? The original actress performing the monologues verbatim over 40 years later?!). At the end of the interview/performance, she dug out her own copy of the play for me to read. I still can hardly believe it, that I have her copy with her notes. We made plans for me to return at some point in the future, to talk more about theater and also because she wants me to teach her a little English (her mother was Jamaican and spoke English at home when she was younger).
Celia and I left the apartment and caught a bus back to Vedado, where we parted ways. So much more progress on my final project. The editing process (which will occupy most of April) is becoming more and more daunting.
After dinner, Andrew and I grabbed a taxi to Habana Vieja where we were going to see a music performance. One of the band members is a female artist that another of our classmates, Dani, is working with for her own project. After poking our heads around for the small venue for about a half an hour, we finally found Patio Amarillo on a vacant side street. We walked into the vaguely open-air garden restaurant, where the band was setting up. Dani and her Cuban novio, Mel, were already there. We joined them at a table, ordered Mojitos, and waited for the band to start. Their work is based out of classic Cuban music (which is strange for a band made entirely of jovenes), but has been spiced up, kind of Fusion-y. Now, I’m not the biggest fan of fusion music, but they were pretty good. The keyboardist was pretty bad though. They wrapped their set and Andrew went to go talk to the tres player before we departed. 2 hours after the band began, we were walking back out of the venue and in search of another peso cab to take back to Vedado. We got home and watched “Goldfinger” before heading off to bed.
Saturday passed in a lazy manner, with Andrew and I having our first outing to a Cuban beach, Playa Santa María. It was warm but windy, and the water was the perfect temperature. It felt so good to be back on a beach, especially in March. We stayed until late afternoon, hoping to have time to return again in the near future. On our return walk home, we stopped at Perro Caliente for hot dogs, which are of poor soggy quality but were extremely satisfying after a few hours in the beach-sun. As we hit Paseo we ran into Oskar, who was waiting for La Fina (one of the raperas we had met during Orientation). They were going to the Cuban Rap Video Awards later that night, and Oskar was meeting her at a bus stop. We stopped and talked for a while until he was safely in her hands, then walked back home and watched “Deliverance” until it was dinnertime. What a great movie. Cinematic achievement, if only for Burt Reynold’s rubber/leather vest.
We spent the night vaguely working, taking a break to go out for coffee and pastries at a nearby bakery.
And that brings us to today. The clocks lost an hour (daylight savings time happens a week later here than it does in the US), so we were up a little later than usual. After breakfast we headed to Central Habana for a rumba drum and dance performance on Calle Hamon. The narrow street is covered in the community’s artwork, with tubs sawed in half, painted brightly and turned into public seating. The walls are covered in murals, and there is a really cool garden for children that was created entirely out of found objects.
We headed back to our home stay, where we are now, writing journals and letters before heading out to lunch and then to the Cohiba to use the internet.
There are 38 days left, and, while I miss home and family and friends, I’m wondering if that is enough time.