Latin American literature scholar Bridgette W. Gunnels interviews Cuban playwright Abel González Melo, author of more than twenty dramas. The interview was originally conducted in Spanish and is translated into English here. [Se puede leer la versión en español aquí.]
Queer Intersections / Southern Spaces is a collection of interdisciplinary, multimedia publications that explore, trouble, and traverse intersections of queer experiences, past, present, and future. From a variety of perspectives, and with an emphasis upon the US South, this series, edited by Eric Solomon, offers critical analysis of LGBTQ+ people, practices, spaces, and places.
Playwright Abel González Melo was born in 1980 in Havana, Cuba, the year the Mariel Boatlift saw approximately 125,000 people flee his country, an event he dramatizes in his 2018 play Nowhere in the World (En ningún lugar del mundo). González Melo studied Theater Arts at the Universidad de las Artes de Cuba. He is the recipient of various prizes and awards for his literary and theater works, including the Premio Primer Concurso de Dramaturgia de la Embajada de España (2005) for Chamaco [Kiddo], one of González Melo's most recognized works. Most recently, in January 2020, he won the prestigious Casa de las Américas prize for his work, Bayamesa.
González Melo's work spans two decades and covers multiple social issues of Cuban life. From Cuba's tangled relationship with the Mariel Boatlift in the aforementioned Nowhere in the World (En ningún lugar del mundo, 2018) to teenage prostitution during the early 2000s in Old Havana in his trilogy, Winter Escapes (Fugas de Invierno, 2004–2009), his plays immerse audiences into the streets that surround Havana's Capitolio, to the parks, alleys, and theaters that provide spaces for illegal prostitution, to private homes centering the importance of family to Cubans. The first decade of González Melo's writing centers the Cuban youth culture of the early 2000s, a culture both gay and straight, hungry and sated, resistant and complacent in a country where the Revolution is still fought daily in the streets (although now around the government approved Wifi hotspots). While González Melo maintains his private identification, his plays challenge categorization, interrogate questions of sexuality, and explore survival, the commodification of the body, intense mental trauma, the pain of history, and the deep love of family. His characters weave in and out of his plays to demonstrate with such complexity that as some things have changed others have remained the same.
González Melo's most recent work shifts to recovering figures and episodes from Cuban history with a revisionist eye. Such figures include the early twentieth-century feminist poet María Luisa Milanés (from Bayamo, Cuba) in Bayamesa (2019), which was awarded the Casa de las Américas prize for theater in January of 2020. Tackling the topic of censure at the height of the Revolution in Cuba, González Melo's recent work features Cuban historical figures. Fuera del juego (Outside the Game), dramatizes the experience of Cuban cultural figure Heberto Padilla, an award-winning poet whose work critiqued the Revolution and its leaders in his moment, 1967–68, leading to his arrest, torture, and subsequent exile to the United States in 1980. Padilla worked many years in various positions in higher education in the US, namely Ohio State University, Bowdoin College, and NYU's Institute for the Humanities, before he died alone as a poet in residence at Auburn University, in 2000. In González Melo's most recent drama, Cádiz en José Martí (Festival de Teatro Iberoamericano de Cádiz, 2020), he dramatizes the mythic national hero of the island, revolutionary figure José Martí (1853–1895), by situating him in the Spanish city of Cádiz, his first destination in his long exile and political deportation under the colonial regime.
In this conversation, González Melo explains his creative process and inspirations, the Cuban migration experience as dramatic material, and the idea of recasting history for new audiences and times. He discusses how he drew from lived experience in Havana to craft Winter Escapes as well as how his recent work dives deeply into questions of community and family during some of Cuba's grimmest moments. González Melo also reflects on the unique ligatures between the United States and Cuba. One of these ties is the Spanish-English linguistic connection, as many Cuban-Americans are bilingual. Our conversation, originally conducted in Spanish, has been translated into English here. [Se puede leer la versión en español aquí.]
Kiddo: One Playwright's Beginnings, or González Melo's Early Work
Gunnels: You have written poetry, narrative, non-fiction. Why theater? Do you think that playwriting suits your stories more than other avenues of creation?
González Melo: Theater has something wonderful for a writer: it moves literature away from loneliness. It proposes creation in a team and in direct contact with the spectator. Both questions are very attractive to me. The idea that writing never ceases, is always reinterpreted in the present, needs the communion between the director, the actors, the designers, the technicians, and precisely, inevitably, the complicity of the audience. I am dazzled by that unfinished nature of dramatic writing, that urge to feel the impact immediately. I enjoy writing narrative or essay, but in both cases I miss the real dialogue with the human being. Probably because, more and more, playwriting for me is a process directly related to a very particular human group; it must have an imagined texture that has to walk on a tightrope for success.
Gunnels: Does it feel 'unfinished' to you because it needs other artists, actors to complete it? Or more because of the constant flow of new audiences that are always distinct?
González Melo: Theater is something we do among us all, both the artists and the public. Remember the Greek origin of the word theater: "to watch or look at." Put another way, we only exist because someone looks at us. That is one of the greatest pleasures of writing dramas: feeling that one only offers a guide of stage directions and dialogues on paper, but that the character will have the body, voice, and soul of whoever embodies it in front of the viewer, and that this person will finish building it, in its process of active reception. Why do we keep reviving and repremiering the classics? Because their essence, rather than the argument, lies in how the specific story is told today in the public agora: who executes it, why they decide to do it, in what context and before whom, what senses are born from that experience.
Gunnels: I want to give readers a sense of your Winter Escapes trilogy before we discuss it.
Chamaco ([Kiddo], 2004 English translation by William Gregory) is the first installment of the trilogy. It was first published in Spanish from Ediciones Alarcos and then translated into English by Yael Prizant (University of Miami Press, 2010).1There are two different translations. William Gregory translated both Kiddo and Nevada; Yael Prizant translated the trilogy in a bilingual version with a different press in 2010. Kiddo has been staged globally, from the Argos Theater in Havana to Manchester, England's HOME Theater, to the most recent translation to Czech, with production in Prague set for fall 2021. The trilogy, including Nevada and Talco [Talc] (the second and third installments), covers a span of three months in a tropical winter of discontent. Miami-based academic and theater critic Lillian Manzor writes that "the trilogy addresses concerns that are dear to the author and his generation, namely: the complex and contradictory ways in which homosexuality, sex, and migration from the countryside to the capital becomes means of survival in a society that has lost all sense of value."2Lillian Manxor and Austin Webber, "Ground Down to Nothing but Still Fighting." Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics. Accessed March 25, 2021. https://hemisphericinstitute.org/en/emisferica-82/manzor-webbert.html. Kiddo immerses viewers into Christmas Eve in Havana, where a sister uneasily waits for her brother to come home for a dinner that he will never eat, as unbeknownst to her he has died in a knife fight. Nevada follows Lucía and her boyfriend/pimp Rosnay as they encounter the reality of selling their bodies in the effort to get out or escape, in this case, to the state of Nevada, where prostitution is legal, and the "candies come in brilliant gold wrappers." Talc, the final installment, portrays a crude and dirty reality that takes place mainly in the bathroom of an old cinema used for trafficking and prostitution, where the paths of four characters—Javi, Mashenka, Zuleidy, and Alvaro—crisscross in a violent and tense battle for survival. The trilogy was followed by nearly twenty other plays. Abel, this trilogy really centers the experience of Cuban youth. Describe the importance of giving voice to Cuban youth in many of the works you've written.
González Melo: Now that you mention it, I think that the protagonists of all my plays reflect my age at the time of writing, and in each text these characters are getting older because they grow with me. I wanted to fill them with my doubts, my foibles, my pains. They are like an undercover image of myself in the midst of the world in which I grew up: the Cuba between decades of wars and shortages, and now for a bit more than a decade in Spain in the twenty-first century. I live on the margin between the two countries, and I watch them both with a mixture of passion and strangeness. I cannot speak of all the young people en masse, I do not know how to do it, but I can tell my story of the transition from adolescence to youth. Those impulses are the ones that haunt my work in theater. Hopefully they have to do with the same impulses and emotions of other people.
Gunnels: "Passion and strangeness"—tell me more.
González Melo: I remember that in the early 2000s, when I was walking through Old Havana at night towards my house, I was very curious about the dozens of teenagers who waited leaning on the columns in front of the Capitol, or hanging around Central Park in the middle of the tourist area. What were all these people doing here? Who were they? Little by little, I got closer to them. Many lived clandestinely in Havana; they had emigrated from the East of the island. All of these cisgender boys prostituted themselves, or aspired to do so.3Note from González Melo: "Here we're speaking of, if one must clarify, only cisgender males. I'm no expert in gender studies nor related terminology, but trans populations and women, as I've explained, were in other zones of the city." I learned of many fascinating, terrible stories. The process of discovering them thoroughly was not easy. None were going to give me an interview and tell me about their lives. I became a discreet client. I saved money and went with one of them to a rental room. In the fleetingness of that moment of strange pleasure, I kept myself alert. I listened to them talk about their lives, about their young children whom they had to feed, about their partners who were aware that they were hunting foreigners or Cubans who could pay for sex. My research expanded. One thing led me to another, and I composed a map of the nocturnal marginality of Old Havana. The female prostitute area was at the intersection of Monte and Cienfuegos streets; transvestites and transsexuals were waiting for their clients in the Parque de la Fraternidad; drugs were sold in an abandoned cinema, etc. I fully immersed myself. I did unthinkable things during those years, things that I would not do today. But luckily I dared to do it: I wanted to get to know these people, their places, their reasons, all that environment that the official press did not publish. Three or four years of immersion. After Kiddo finished, I still had so much material that Nevada and Talc were born. Also in my plays Por gusto and Within there are traces of this universe.
Gunnels: Lucía from Nevada and María Luisa from Bayamesa really move me because of the way they confront their worlds, hostile worlds, but always with persistence and love of family front and center. They are strong feminist cross-generational characterizations. For you, is there one character or "angel" from your work that really moves you?
González Melo: I don't usually start from emotion in my writing process. I am quite technical, something I learned with my teacher Raquel Carrió (a great Cuban author, founder in 1976 of the Dramaturgy Department at the University of the Arts of Cuba). the structure-character-language triad is the basis of the preparation of my projects. I believe that emotion comes (or does not come) in parallel with (or after) appreciation of experience. The emotion will then be in the viewer. But for this to happen, the construction of the text or the show itself must be precise, clear; it cannot start from the desire to move emotionally, because the work becomes disfigured. Sometimes I feel that emotion clouds the objectivity of what happens. This happens a lot with actors who act "excited" and then, they overact; or with the dramatists who are over-excited with what they are doing and lose the course of the action, they lose the written synthesis.
It is true that I have had some unique experiences—I would say mystical—during writing itself. It happened while writing Kiddo, in that I felt like someone was dictating it to me directly, right over my shoulder into my ear. The violent death of my father was very recent and the monologue of Silvia, when she found out that her brother had been murdered, I wrote that in tears. I have always believed that Kiddo is my father who became an angel to dictate this work to me and has accompanied me ever since.
History Repeating Itself
Especially in his more recent dramas, Abel González Melo has shifted from describing personal experiences in his work to referencing and dramatizing Cuban historical touchpoints (such as the Mariel Boatlift, the UMAPs work camps, the Grey Period, and the Special Period of Peace). The Mariel Boatlift consitutes the single largest mass migration from Cuba in its history. From April to October 1980, an estimated 125,000 Cubans left the Mariel Port for the United States. The story was well-covered in the media. A small group of Cubans ran a city bus into the gates of the Peruvian Embassy in Havana in an attempt to gain access to the grounds to request political asylum (and eventually leave the island). They were granted asylum, and afterwards, an estimated 10,000 people approached the embassy with the same hopes. Watching this situation unfold from the US, then President Jimmy Carter issued an open invitation to anyone from Cuba who was fleeing the Castro regime, bypassing in part US immigration policy and procedure. A typical Castro pivot followed: after a very public speech on May 1, the Day of the Worker, in Havana's Revolution Plaza, he emptied Cuban's prisons and hospitals of convicted criminals and ill patients and required any American vessel that was picking up family or loved ones at Mariel Port to also take with them a boatload of other 'undesirables,' in which he included homosexual men and those with severe psychiatric problems. As González Melo notes in our conversation below, Cuba's history with gay males is marked by tragic discrimination, torture, and death. The storied UMAP work camps (in Spanish, Unidades Militares de Ayuda de la Producción) that served as a type of work-based prison from 1965–68 in Camagüey, Cuba, were politicized as agricultural camps for "conscientious objectors," but were more a type of social "purge" of any person who was deemed to be anti-Castro or anti-revolutionary, according to historian Abel Sierra Madero.4Abel Sierra Madero, "Academies to Produce Macho-Men in Cuba." Translated by Alicia Barraqué Ellison. Translating Cuba. February 19, 2016. https://translatingcuba.com/academies-to-produce-macho-men-in-cuba-abel-sierra-madero/. This included those accused of homosexuality.
Following the years of the UMAP work camps is a period of a little more than five years (1971–1977) known as the Grey Period (El quinquenio gris in Spanish) in which the Cuban government controlled rigidly the cultural and artistic productions of the island, severly limiting artistic expression and publication. Several of Cuba's most noted dramatists, like Virgilio Piñera (1912–1979), Abelardo Estorino (1925–2013), and Antón Arrufat (1935–) suffered tremendously under this censure, as much for their insistence on creative freedom as for their homosexuality. Surrounded by a hostile environment, all three utilized metaphor as a form of expression, always trying to avoid censure. Piñera's work questioned in broad terms concepts of national identity and the role of the writer as resistor. A prolific writer of essay, short story and theater, Piñera's collections Cold Tales (1956) and Little Maneuvers (1963) were credited with inspiring generations of writers after him, including noted Mariel author Reinaldo Arenas. Abelardo Estorino, who was censured earlier with his work Los mangos de Caín (1965), only wrote one text in the 70s and instead dedicated himself to directing classics in the Company Teatro Estudio. Antón Arrufat was awarded high honors from the National Union of Writers and Artists (UNEAC, in Spanish) for Los siete contra Tebas in 1968, but that institution published the book with a note that accused the writer of being a counter-revolucionary; Arrufat was condemned and ostracized, and didn't publish for more than a decade.
Finally, immigration to and from Havana varied drastically from the 1960s to the present day, and the laws prohibiting re-entry, as well as the acrid political relationship between the US and the Castro regime, created a layered way of understanding home, community, and exile. The early 1960s saw an exodus of the upper and middle classes, who for the most part landed in south Florida and remained. After the Mariel Boatlift, US immigration policy of the mid-90s led to some increased immigration from the island, as "wet foot, dry foot" allowed for fast-tracking of US immigration procedures for Cubans, and the increase of rafters (balseros, in Spanish) is notable during this Special Period of Peace. Of these major immigration waves, Mariel is distinctive due to the population demographics as well as the politicized spin on both sides. That group was both maligned by Cubans on the island and experienced a rougher integration into their new south Florida community.5Aviva Chomsky, A History of the Cuban Revolution, 2nd ed. (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell, 2015), 75.
González Melo is a descendent of these early Cuban playwrights as well as an inheritor of this tangled history. In the conversation below he reflects on the reality of the gay male in Cuba before and after Mariel, and how this facet of Cuban history finds its way into his work. In particular, his play Outside the Game revisits the Padilla Case and the UMAPs, highlighting the subversive censure and psychological torture of artists in the early days of the Revolution. His play Bayamesa reaches back the farthest in Cuban history to tackle issues of colonialist tradition, gender roles, and feminism in Cuba.
Gunnels: How have you seen the Cuban life change for the gay man from writing Kiddo (2004) to Nowhere in the World (2018)?
González Melo: The time period you're referring to is about a decade long, and I don't think that we have seen noted change with regard to the day-to-day life of the gay man in Cuba. The Revolution wasn't too friendly with homosexuals, as they were considered during much of that time as the equivalent of social filth and outcasts; indeed many homosexuals were sent to work camps during the years of 1965–68 (UMAPS, Military Units for Help in Production). This entire process accentuated and encouraged intense machismo and homophobia in Cuban society. In the work of some of the best Cuban dramatists, who additionally were homosexual (I'm thinking of Virgilio Piñera, Abelardo Estorino, or Antón Arrufat), the topic is absent or appears hidden mostly due to self-censure/autocensure. After the horrible experience with the UMAP came the equally traumatic decade of the 1970s, which is historically noted for its strong politics based in marginalization of homosexual artists. My generation hasn't felt as much pain, as today's Cuban artist deals with a more or less 'friendly' public, although homophobia definitely persists and has found more pernicious ways to manifest. In my work personally I've been able to take on the topic of homosexuality in works that I have published and performed on the island; additionally, anthologies of homoerotic poetry and narrative have recently been published. We are trying to include in an amendment to the national Constitution the idea of gay marriage rights, an idea that is presently accepted in many other countries in the world. The problem is that for so many years, too many years, our own government has planted seeds of hate towards homosexuals, and the mentality of a country can't be changed from one day to the next.
Gunnels: But can theater change a country? The power of art or interrogation?
González Melo: I don't believe either theater or any other artistic manifestation can change a society. It would be too pretentious to think so. I have heard phrases like "art changes the world," and I always feel that they have a figurative, metaphorical meaning. Theater is not a political party; it is not an army; it is not an atomic bomb or a pandemic. It does not have that power of abrupt, immediate, forceful change. What theater can do, and I believe this to be true, is to touch the mind and heart of a person, of a spectator who attends a show and discovers another way of looking, of identifying himself/herself in that mirror, of finding something that hurts them deeply. Theater transforms, in this sense, the individual and not the masses, although we share the experience of our art collectively, together. Theater always works at (in its execution, in its reception) particular behaviors, not general ones. We touch one person, and that person will have, on occasion perhaps, the opportunity to touch the things that move the world. That is the simple and beautiful condition of our art.
Gunnels: Your 2018 play Nowhere in the World (En ningún lugar del mundo) addresses silence around sexual identity in Cuba (from the 80s to present day), as well as issues of gay visibility and the trauma of military service, as the lead Ángel negotiates the acute pain of the Mariel Boatlift for those that left as well as for those that remained. Cuba has a thirteen-year history in Africa (1975–1988), with Cuban forces on the ground in the name of liberation from South Africa during that time. Their association ended with Namibian independence and, some say, the beginning of the retreat of apartheid in the area. Regardless, Cuban forces returned with psychological issues, and the drama of Nowhere in the World revisits that time, as well as the impending trauma of Mariel. Ángel leaves the island with the boatlift, and the drama picks up with his return to Cuba after Mariel, to find that family trauma is deep and unforgiving. How do you understand the legacy of the Mariel Generation in comparison to other Cuban artists that have written in exile, either forced or by choice?
González Melo: The protagonist of Nowhere in the World was forced to leave Cuba in 1980 during the Mariel Boatlift, due to psychiatric problems (yes, a ruthless detail of Cuban history: the mentally ill were directly considered scum, unwanted by society, alongside homosexuals and convicts), although the truth of the matter was that the family wanted to get rid of him due to his frequent and violent testimonies of the hard experience of three years as a soldier in the Angolan War as you describe in your synopsis. The history of our exiles is full of anonymous people who have not given their testimony because they are still traumatized. Mariel as a historical moment is very broad and diverse in its interpretation; it often escapes homogeneous cataloging. The most important thing is what it meant as a phenomenon, and the thousands of Cubans who could (who were forced to) integrate themselves into the North American culture and, at the same time, enrich it with their direct action. The culture and society of Miami cannot be understood today without adding the layers of exiles that that city has assumed. Personally, I admire the will and the resistance of the generations of Cuban exiles who have reinvented the concept of homeland.
Gunnels: What do you think about other playwrights who experienced Mariel on the island and stayed? I'm thinking of the play Eggs, by Ulises Rodríguez Febles. We spoke already about the idea of getting out, but what of those who stay?
González Melo: The Mariel story has been told brilliantly by playwrights who keep creating on the island, as Ulises himself in Eggs or Carlos Celdrán in Ten Million. Both were very young in 1980 but have managed to print their texts, full of autobiographical nuances, and this quality surpasses historical reconstruction. I like that: that we can shake off the dust of daily life, that steals so much of our daily energy, and look at our history and our future with a different perspective. Those authors live in Cuba, yes, but they have recognized international careers. Ulises was tremendously successful in Mexico with a work that curiously reconstructs the trajectory of another exiled artist, Dámaso Pérez Prado, and Celdrán has premiered Ten Million at important festivals all over the world. More and more the border between the outside and the inside, between going and staying, is more permeable and less strict. Fortunately.
Drama as Dissection: One Playwright's Persistent Project
From the 1970s to the late 80s, Cuba's economy was nearly solely supported by the Soviet Union, who imported Cuban sugar and other products and exported massive amounts of petroleum to the island to fuel agriculture and transportation. The external effects of the dissolution of the Comecon were immediate: Cuba lost nearly 80% of its imports, and with a heavy trade embargo from the US already in place, the country was left without a major import/export partner. The island entered a period of years (from 1991–1995, although some say it hasn't ended) that later became known as the Special Period of Peace (Período especial), marked by extreme food scarcity (borderline famine), nationwide blackouts to conserve energy (apagones), sometimes for twelve to fourteen hours daily, and a complete dry up of tourism. González Melo was a teenager during this time at the Lenin School in Havana.
Gunnels: Describe how growing up during the Special Period impacted your view of Cuban life vis-à-vis foreign powers.
González Melo: The influence is inevitable. My childhood was full of the Russian and Soviet imaginary: that trace is evident, for example, in my work Talc, but also in part of my stories and in my passion for that culture. I studied in a boarding school called, very precisely, "Lenin." I was there between years 1994 and 1997. There I suffered intense shortages (food, electricity, health resources), but I also discovered solidarity. At that school I suffered bullying, but I was able to become an independent person. From that experience full of contrasts, my first book was born: Wax Memoirs. And that stage, the Special Period, marked my interest in the paradox in which we Cubans have lived. We all shout heroic slogans in the Plaza de la Revolución during the parades, and at the same time we starve to death at home and whisper in the corners the details of our misery. The Special Period adjusted the standard of living of society and increased class differences, clientelism, the black market, corruption in all areas. That double-edged moral crisscrosses my literature: characters who need, at all costs, to put on masks to continue surviving.
Gunnels: In Nevada, a salient theme is the Cuban desire to get out or escape. How do you see that imagined community elsewhere juxtaposed against what is often a very different reality (as in the case of Mariel, for example, or the present-day immigratory reality in the USA)?
González Melo: Being born on an island foments the desire to go beyond the immediate borders that the sea imposes. Virgilio Piñera summed it up in an image: "The damn circumstance of having water everywhere." The island is a prison and the longing to leave is constant alongside, in my case, having the opportunity to return. The need to flee the island has been a consistent facet of Cuban identity, increased by political and economic factors experienced in various stages of the Revolution. My own father had to go into exile in Mexico in order to guarantee us a better life: I am not talking about luxuries, but about having money to eat, to dress and take care of ourselves, to move about the island. The United States is the destination for a great many Cuban migrations; we have a very close relationship. In my doctoral thesis I study precisely the links between family and exile in the dramaturgy of Greater Cuba, understood here as a Cuba generated both on the island and abroad. I like that idea of an expanded homeland, not subject to physical limits, but rather to feelings and areas that both share in common. This issue is found in a large part of my work as an element of our idiosyncrasy: the idea of leaving and returning. Both Nevada and Within talk about the undercover, dangerous trip by sea and the risks undertaken there. In Sistema, the tension is precisely in that the protagonist is trapped in Miami and cannot return. Epopeya, Weathered, Nowhere in the World illustrate the arc that starts at exile only to return after some time, and then most critically, everything that that particular reunion involves and drags out into the present.
Gunnels: But for the Marielitos, precisely, who were told upon leaving that they would never be allowed to return, exile is (was?) painful in different ways. How does this pain of return change the "community" of Greater Cuba that you mention earlier? Is that something that Nowhere in the World wants to dissect?
González Melo: Of course. Mariel and the Angolan War are matters that we have barely dealt with in the Cuban national tradition of writing, but their traces are still there. They are wounds that have not been closed, and I have tried to touch some of it with Nowhere in the World. The family structure has been, in the tradition of Cuban dramaturgy, the nucleus through which to observe perennial social and political issues. This has to do with what I was saying before: theater only works from the particular and not from the general. Historical processes are analyzed in books, articles, interviews, in extensive bibliographic and documentary collections. A play cannot contain all of that process, all of the lives wasted in the attempt to build a certain political-social project. What a play can do is sharpen the gaze, focus on a small human group and apply the scalpel to it. You use the correct verb: dissect. As a playwright I feel exactly like this: Cuba is my operating room, that broken family is the body that lies on the table, and I have to apply the scalpel with caution, with great responsibility, trying to get to the root of the pain.
Gunnels: It's true, as you mention before, there is a very different, distinct type of relationship with the US. Would you say that your experiences in the US as a Cuban-born artist have been particularly revealing in terms of understanding this distinct relationship?
González Melo: They have been very different experiences. In Chicago, for example, Aguijón Theater premiered Within and Epopeya. Despite being texts with marked national references and with a Cuban (Sándor Menéndez) director, in both cases there was a rich dialogue with a wider Latino community, thanks also to the excellent translations of Marcela Muñoz. The actors, artistic team, and spectators took on as their own the themes of uprooting and political frustration. I felt something similar with the premiere of Por gusto in Repertorio Español in New York, and what was also with a Cuban director, Leyma López: the incessant disillusionment of youth and the monotony of a circular existence were related issues to a multinational cast. When Ohio Northern University produced Nevada, I remember that they were very interested in the detailed study of the context. Part of the team visited the island and the editing included documentary projections, which contrasted deliciously with the dramatization of the text in English (by the Mexican Otto Minera and with translation of Yael Prizant). In Miami, where the Hispanic community is also wide and varied, the essential confrontation has been with the Cuban public, which logically is the most interested, either by direct experience or by reference, in fictions about the marginal Havana of Kiddo, Talc, and Nevada, works that Alberto Sarraín directed. I feel that the premiere of Nowhere in the World at the XXXIII International Festival of Hispanic Theater, in production of Teatro Avante, directed by Mario Ernesto Sánchez and with translation by Marian Prío, has further dimensioned the debate on Cuba / United States tension, which is the conflict between those who stayed and those who left. I always mention the translators because I consider their work and dedication essential. They, and my British translator William Gregory, have been responsible for my texts being so well rewritten in that language.
Gunnels: How do you choose what specific issue you are going to dissect in the work? Your 2019 play Bayamesa is the direct portrayal of traditional, early twentieth-century Cuba, where the lead María Milanés struggles to align traditional Cuba with her own very feminist dreams and ambitions. In it, you shift time and space on the stage to bring the play into tense dialogue between past and present, with a gut-wrenching suicide that leaves the audience broken. In Bayamesa we find the authentic woman who encourages all but also the idea of suicide as a social issue emerges, when today there are more and more suicides of young people. It's like the final lines of your other 2019 play Outside the Game: "history repeats itself, and it repeats itself."
González Melo: The motivation for writing is multiple and changes from one project to another. The essential thing is always that the starting material resonates with me, that it seems urgent to share it on stage. In the case of Bayamesa, I owe a lot to my mother, who is a philologist and writer, and who spoke to me for the first time about María Luisa Milanés (1893–1919). I read her poems. I read her surprising autobiography, which is possibly the first feminist manifesto written in Cuba and one of the first in Latin America. I was struck by her symbolic suicide: a shot in the belly, with her military father's pistol. A free soul like her preferred to escape in this way, rather than continue being subjected to the prevailing machismo. I knew that the play must be a requiem that would bring her back to life, through a fiction that tried to accompany her, give her a voice, even during the short hour and a half that the staging lasts. A century of her death was celebrated in 2019 and yet, as you say, unfortunately this continues to be such a current drama....
Gunnels: Where do you see your work going after Bayamesa?
González Melo: I am immersing myself more and more in the history of Cuba. I think that our history has been approached very little in dramaturgy, sometimes with a very superficial gaze, and I trust that theater has the possibility of shining a clear and precise light on events of the past that allow us to situate ourselves in the complexity of the present. How can we live, how can we understand the country we are if we do not analyze what has brought us here? For years I worked on issues and conflicts of the immediate present, from the spaces on the margins to the luxury of the new rich. But right now that present has me exhausted. Imagine a country that is increasingly under-supplied, with lousy public transport, a country where people have to spend hours and hours in horrifying lines to get a pound of pork, a bag of detergent, a liter of oil, all at astronomical prices. The current panorama is bleak; I would not know in what dramatic tone to approach it. Perhaps only from the farce or the grotesque. That is why I take refuge in the past, because I feel that without memory there is no density of tradition. There is so much to dig into. Theater has not gone into depth, for example, in the serious cases of censorship caused by the cultural policies of the Revolution. Censorship interests me a lot. We have it too close to us, often without realizing it. I am very interested in historical revision, provided it has a particular nuance that can speak to a global tension.
Gunnels: Censorship continues to be a pernicious problem in the world, perhaps now with different 'faces.' When addressing the Padilla case in your play Outside the Game, you concentrate on problematizing the role of the artist.6In this play, González Melo re-envisions the infamous Padilla Case, whereby celebrated poet Heberto Padilla is arrested, jailed, tortured, and finally exiled for his counterrevolutionary work that questioned the Revolution, the Comandante (Fidel Castro), and role of writers in general. Used as a classic illustration of the traumatic censorship of the late 60s and early 70s in Havana, González Melo tells the story from the voice of the poet himself as the lead role. Are you interested in "complicating things," to put it in the words of your own Heberto Padilla?
González Melo: It is said that one writes the same work throughout life. The issue of censorship and self-censorship has always interested me, perhaps because from a young age I had to negotiate with that force. My book Wax Memoirs almost didn't see the light of day, because although it won a national award for its publication, it told about my discovery of sexuality at the Lenin school, which the editorial officials did not like at all. Kiddo, in fact, can be understood as a work about the fear of free expression within the Depás family, where each one fears being open to the other and they all live in a spiral of lies. Epopeya, although it won the 2014 National Prize for Dramaturgy and was published by Ediciones Alarcos, had a fleeting presentation of only fifty copies. It was not distributed in bookstores; the book cannot be found anywhere and the work cannot be released in Cuba. (It's a play where I use the metaphor of the Trojan War and the conflicts of Hecuba by Euripides as a hypotext to debate, once again, the return to the island of exiled Cubans, once Priam has fallen in combat).
It is true that in recent years I have moved much closer to the relationship between art and censorship. In 2017 I directed at Argos Teatro in Havana Letters of Love to Stalin by the Spanish playwright Juan Mayorga, which for me is a play that talks about the same situation that many artists, journalists, and Cubans in general suffer: the terror of telling the truth, of speaking freely. It is also one of Bayamesa's themes: the censorship of creative freedom, the expression of pain through poetry, the need to be independent. The father, husband, and mother of María Luisa Milanés did not allow that rebellious spirit, and that unleashed the conflict and brought forth the fatal outcome. The same thing happens with Heberto Padilla: he was a man very close to the Cuban Revolution in the early 1960s. He was even a diplomat, but he slowly became disenchanted and his poetry became increasingly inadmissible for a regime that ended up suffocating him. I don't want to "complicate things," rather I try the opposite: to make these issues visible and debatable by turning them into theater and language.
About the Interviewer and Interviewee
Bridgette W. Gunnels is Associate Professor of Spanish at Emory University and a scholar in Latin American literature from the twentieth century, in all forms, with special emphasis in the short story.
Abel González Melo is a Cuban dramatist, writer, teacher, and theater director. González Melo studied Theater Arts at the Universidad de las Artes de Cuba and is the recipient of various prizes and awards for his literary and theater works, including the Premio Primer Concurso de Dramaturgia de la Embajada de España (2005) for Chamaco [Kiddo]. Most recently, in January 2020, he won the prestigious Casa de las Américas prize for his work, Bayamesa.
Chomsky, Aviva. A History of the Cuban Revolution. 2nd ed. Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2015.
Farber, Samuel. Cuba Since the Revolution of 1959: A Critical Assessment. Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2011.
Guerra, Lillian. "Gender Policing, Homosexuality, and the New Patriarchy of the Cuban Revolution, 1965–70." Social History 35, no. 3 (2010): 268–289.
Latner, Teishan A. Cuban Revolution in America: Havana and the Making of a United States Left, 1968–1992. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2018.
Miller, Nicola. "A Revolutionary Modernity: The Cultural Policy of the Cuban Revolution." Journal of Latin American Studies 40, no. 4 (2008): 675–696.
Ocasio, Rafael. "Gays and the Cuban Revolution: The Case of Reinaldo Arenas." Latin American Perspectives 29, no. 2 (2002): 78–98.
Prizant, Yael. Cuba Inside Out: Revolution and Contemporary Theatre. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2014.
Story, Isabel. Soviet Influence on Cuban Culture, 1961–1987: When the Soviets Came to Stay. London: Rowan and Littlefield, 2019.
Weiss, Mark, ed. The Whole Island: Six Decades of Cuban Poetry. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009.
Buirski, Diana. "The Cuban Theatre Crisis." American Theatre. November 1, 2013. https://www.americantheatre.org/2013/11/01/the-cuban-theatre-crisis/.
Cuban Theater Digital Archive. University of Miami College of Arts and Sciences and Libraries (Coral Gables, Florida). Accessed March 25, 2021. http://ctda.library.miami.edu/.
Manzor, Lillian and Austin Webber. "Ground Down to Nothing but Still Fighting." Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics. Accessed March 25, 2021. https://hemisphericinstitute.org/en/emisferica-82/manzor-webbert.html.
Sierra Madero, Abel. "Academies to Produce Macho-Men in Cuba." Translated by Alicia Barraqué Ellison. Translating Cuba. February 19, 2016. https://translatingcuba.com/academies-to-produce-macho-men-in-cuba-abel-sierra-madero/.
|1.||There are two different translations. William Gregory translated both Kiddo and Nevada; Yael Prizant translated the trilogy in a bilingual version with a different press in 2010.|
|2.||Lillian Manxor and Austin Webber, "Ground Down to Nothing but Still Fighting." Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics. Accessed March 25, 2021. https://hemisphericinstitute.org/en/emisferica-82/manzor-webbert.html.|
|3.||Note from González Melo: "Here we're speaking of, if one must clarify, only cisgender males. I'm no expert in gender studies nor related terminology, but trans populations and women, as I've explained, were in other zones of the city."|
|4.||Abel Sierra Madero, "Academies to Produce Macho-Men in Cuba." Translated by Alicia Barraqué Ellison. Translating Cuba. February 19, 2016. https://translatingcuba.com/academies-to-produce-macho-men-in-cuba-abel-sierra-madero/.|
|5.||Aviva Chomsky, A History of the Cuban Revolution, 2nd ed. (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell, 2015), 75.|
|6.||In this play, González Melo re-envisions the infamous Padilla Case, whereby celebrated poet Heberto Padilla is arrested, jailed, tortured, and finally exiled for his counterrevolutionary work that questioned the Revolution, the Comandante (Fidel Castro), and role of writers in general. Used as a classic illustration of the traumatic censorship of the late 60s and early 70s in Havana, González Melo tells the story from the voice of the poet himself as the lead role.|