April 19, 2018 marks a historical event in Cuba, even if few are paying attention. After nearly 60 years of rule by either Fidel Castro, “El Comandante,” or his brother Raúl Castro, Cuba finally has a new President, Miguel Diaz-Canel. He was not elected by the people, and the international news professes that there will be little change in the country. However, only time will tell what might happen to governance and daily life in the tenacious and turbulent island nation.
The day after, I had the pleasure of attending Bienvenidos Blancos, by Alex Torra, at the FringeArts in Philadephia. Bienvenidos Blancos, or “Welcome White People,” is a provocative title of this new work, by Alex Torra and the Team Sunshine Performance Corporation, with support by the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage. Alex Torra also directed the piece, assisted by Cheryl Zaldívar Jiménez, which was developed in collaboration with the acting ensemble at Teatro Ludi, Swarthmore Project in Theater, Swarthmore College, Taller Puertorriqueño and FringeArts.
Bienvenidos Blancos is a bilingual production (Spanish/English) and the cast includes Americans and Cubans: Jorge Enrique Caballero Elizarde, Benjamin Camp, Lori Felipe Barkin, Idalmis Garcia Rodriguez, and Jenna Horton. Timbalona, a percussion duo comprised of Andrés Cisneros and Christian Noguera, provided pre-show music. The show is arranged in four chapters and at the end Torra comes out and addresses the audience directly. He speaks about his Cuban heritage and its inspiration for the play. His parents immigrated from Cuba and he is trying to hold on to the culture in his own life and identity. Paloma Irizarry handled the supertitles, which worked perfectly on Friday, April 20. Since much of the audience is non-Spanish-speaking, the English titles projected on a small screen above the action are important, but not intrusive.
Bienvenidos Blancos is humorous and parodies stereotypes and misconceptions that predominate about Cuba and its people (and Americans too!) . The approach is experimental, lacking a linear narrative. It organically weaves dialogue, music, dance and Afro-Cuban folklore and religion to create a collage of vignettes.
The action on stage is entertaining and usually funny but it does take some time to digest the messages that the actors are attempting to convey. Torra´s Cuba is neither the Cuba of those born and raised on the island before the Revolution or after. Nor is it that imagined by the ´blancos´ or monolingual tourists who mostly visit to enjoy the beaches and experience what they imagine is the vibrant Cuban culture–like a tropical show with dancing girls with big headdresses and maracas. It is a mix of what is passed down through generations, filtered through the lens of Cubans who left the island due to the Revolution, as well as the input of contemporary Cuban actors (who live in today´s post-1959 Cuba) involved in the show. It is influenced by Torra´s perceptions as a Cuban-American living in the United States. Depending on where such immigrants live in the USA, the experience could be one that celebrates the culture of the ´old country,´ replete with nostalgia, or it might be quite xenophobic and discriminatory, or a blend of both.
Costumes by Fabian Fidel Aguilar, and set by Efren Delgadillo, Jr., are simple but they invoke Cuba. The arches over the doors to the wings, remind me of those that I have seen in Havana, and the military, historical and tropical show costumes also situate the interactions. The stark uncluttered set (except for a desk, chairs, Che Guevara poster, and a few other items) has a familiar ´empty´ and utilitarian feel, typical of interior design in Cuba and in some of the former nations of the USSR that I have visited.
The ensemble of actors is tight and works well together. The comedic timing, especially by Cuban actors, Caballero Elizarde and Garcia Rodriguez, is spot on. I was impressed by their acting–both smoothly transitioned through multiple characters. Particularly strong and engaging is the entire cast´s interpretation of Cuban history and the tropical show scene.
Bienvenidos Blancos is overall a thought-provoking and engaging evening. It is a must-see for those interested in or familiar with Cuba, and also those who enjoy experimental theater. Please note, that there is no intermission and the play runs for 90 minutes.
Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission.
Bienvenidos Blancos plays through April 28, 2018 at Fringearts: 140 N. Columbus Boulevard, Philadelphia, PA. For tickets please contact the box office at 215-413-9006 or purchase online.