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Conterpunch

Making Sense of Cuban History

November 14, 1994|MIGDIA CHINEA-VARELA | Migdia Chinea-Varela is a Cuban-born screenwriter-essayist with an interest in the promotion and accurate portrayal of Latin American culture. and

A friend invited my husband and me to see "Floating Islands," four new plays at the Mark Taper Forum that deal with several generations of a Cuban family and the turbulent political backdrop that led to their displacement. With more than 30 major characters and a run of about six hours, these plays constitute an epic on dislocation, but they are not about just any community that has given way to randomness, drift and chaos. In this case, the play deals directly with the eventual estrangement of Cubans from their homeland and from each other.

Part of the problem in conveying the many complex reasons behind the Cuban exile is that little is known about Cubans as an ethnic group. Moreover, Cubans have rarely moved on the same wavelength as other ethnic groups, and most particularly other Latino groups, making their motivations difficult to pigeonhole. As a Cuban American screenwriter, I know this dichotomy well; that given the lack of accurate exposure received by Cubans in the media, it sometimes becomes much easier to feed the public's formulaic expectations.

Whereas Italian Americans, African Americans and Jewish Americans have a large body of work from which to draw comparison, criticism or praise, that's not the case with Cuban Americans--all we have are old reruns of "I Love Lucy." For example, in the Calendar article of Oct. 24, "The Long and Twisted Route to 'Islands,' " when theater critic Laurie Winer riffs freely on playwright Eduardo Machado's motives by saying that "historical events drive much of the personal anguish, and those events define the characters more than the author's insights. . . ," she delineates what is missing from the play: some intellectual lines of argument behind the emotional causes. In that context, it would appear plausible how Machado may have unconsciously believed that it was incumbent upon him to explain our collective raison d'etre --our tragedy, as well as our comedy.

But you can't be all things to all people. Cuban history is so mired in contradiction that four (make that four hundred ) plays could not explain the extent to which political events have shaped our mentality.

I agree with Winer in that there are many ways in which "Floating Islands" could have cut deeper. Some of the play's threads don't have enough edge to stave off sentimentality, while some scenes exist simply for shock value or for laughs. In some instances, things as simple as body language seemed too self-conscious and devoid of the kinds of important Cuban mannerisms that a good Cuban director may have been able to detect and correct. But even when "Floating Islands" misfires, it rarely fails to communicate a sobering kind of pathos and excitement about my people. The truth is that seeing the plight of my brethren portrayed on the stage brought a tear to my eye, and a glimmer of hope to my heart.

My congratulations to Machado.

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