HAVANA — Sage Lewis, a young Minnesota-born composer who spent three years creating an American-Cuban theatrical collaboration called “The Closest Farthest Away,” wanted the world premiere to be in Havana, so the Cuban actors (who appear only on film) could be there.
He and the team from Project Por Amor overcame countless obstacles, ranging from problems with both governments to a broken projector bulb and a power outage hours before the first performance, but this weekend they made it happen.
And it was clear from the remarkable Q&A after the third performance Sunday that they had struck a deep chord with the mostly Cuban audience.
“The play makes my heart beat really fast,” a Cuban man said to loud applause. He explained that he got permission to leave Cuba in 1995, but after two years of thinking decided not to go. “I don’t know what I missed — but I’m very grateful for what I didn’t miss.”
Saying “it’s very emotional for me too,” the on-stage translator jumped in with her own story. She left Cuba in 1995 and now teaches Spanish and literature at a New York college. “I don’t know what I missed, but I’m grateful for the things I achieved.” She got applause too.
Nowhere to be together but ‘Theatre of the Sea’
The story line of “The Closest Farthest Way” involves an American scientist and a Cuban doctor who fall in love and can find no place to live together except the “Theatre of the Sea.”
Musician Yrak Saenz, who performs a hip-hop number in the film, said he was living the story. His wife, a North American, lives in Miami with their son. They travel to Mexico so they can all be together. (Hip-hop, by the way, was considered music of the enemy because it was from the United States, but is now well-supported, according to Sage Lewis.)
There was very little overt political commentary in the script, which had to go through Cuban censors (though Ana, the Cuban doctor, does complain to her father that in Cuba even decent people steal, and the Cuban economy cannot even create a decent head of lettuce). In the Q&A, too, the Cubans carefully avoided talking about their government. But the purpose of the collaboration is, in a way, profoundly political — aiming to bring the people of these two countries closer together through “the crazy process of art-making,” Lewis said.
The use of live American actors interacting with Cubans on film, in addition to being technically dazzling, represented a powerful metaphor — that these two people, less than 90 miles apart, cannot be in the same space.
“Cubans are taught to fear Americans as bad,” said Boris Gonzalez Arenas, who directed the Cuban actors on film. “But we received only affection, consideration and respect” during this collaboration. “We would like the Americans to take home the same feelings.”
Headed for Miami in March
The production was created primarily for U.S. audiences and will be performed in Miami in March 2010. The Project Por Amor team hopes it will be performed elsewhere and are still revising the piece. (The first performance felt a bit like a tech rehearsal — and in fact was the first run-through of the entire piece.)
A number of California and New York theater professionals attended the opening, including Teresa Eyring, the head of the Theater Communications Group and former managing director of Children’s Theater Company in Minneapolis.
Hundreds of people attended each performance at Teatro Mella, named for a co-founder of the first Cuban Communist Party. Minnesotans included Lewis family members and friends and a group from Plymouth Congregational Church who were on a trip to visit a sister church in a small Cuban city. Project funders came from Connecticut and Massachusetts.
A new generation
Almost all the performers and crew from both countries are young, about 30. The American director, Chi-wang Yang, said, “This is something from the new generation speaking about the relationship between the two countries. … Our generation has been handed many problems.”
A 48-year-old theater professional who left Cuba for California in 2001 agreed that new voices need to be heard — both in the United States and Cuba. “It’s time for the older generation to leave the scene.”
Ironically, the final comments during the Q&A Sunday were made by a much older man, Cuban filmmaker Enrique Pineda Barnet.
“I cannot leave my seat without adding my own grain of sand to the ‘Theatre of the Sea,’ he said slowly.
“Five or six years ago it was not possible for this piece to be performed in this theater. This is an extraordinary and historic moment … transcending a political divide. We’re becoming part of a large new structure being built right now … a bridge that goes above all our differences. The bridge is being built strong and tough … by love and for love.”
Like the show itself, he got a standing ovation.
Joel Kramer, MinnPost editor and CEO, and Laurie Kramer, director of MinnPost membership, special events and outreach, will write more about their trip to Cuba, and publish some of their photographs, when they return to the United States and get a better Internet connection.