Dreaming the Body in Exile
Reinaldo Arenas’ Persecución
The 2014 Association for Theater in Higher Education (ATHE) conference posed the notion of “dreaming” as its thematic hub, a notion that took root in the soil where the conference was held: Arizona, the cradle of virulent anti-immigration laws, a plight mostly focusing on Central American and Mexican undocumented persons. Taking a cue from the Cuban-American novelist, Cristina Garcia’s Dreaming in Cuban, a multidisciplinary panel of six greater Cuba scholars expanded the field of Latino studies by covering contemporary performance, espiritismo practice, historiographies of acting technique, avant-garde theater, and dramatic criticism. The panel was entitled "Dreaming in Cuban: Interpretations of the Body in Dance, Ritual, Theater, and Performance," co-chaired by Kimberly Ramirez and Eric Mayer-Garcia. Much of the conversation approached the paradox of the performer's body as the source of "dreaming," as well as an axis upon which the Cuba dreamt in performance touches the material world. The idea of this ensuing blog is to keep the conversation going for those who were there and to introduce those who were not present to this exciting dialogue on Cuban performance ~Teresa Marrero.
“Dreaming in Cuban” is dedicated to performance as a way to evoke, remember, feel, create, long for, and traverse Cuba. The discussion in the blog series that follows on Cuban theater and performance includes new research on contemporary, historical, ritual, and experimental performance based in Havana and Miami. Each of the contributing writers present unique ways of seeing performance as kind of dreaming that reaches beyond the Cuban cultural context and enlivens our understanding of what theater and performance do in the creation and renewal of community across the strain of national borders, separation by great distances, and temporal gaps. Dr. Kimberly del Busto Ramírez analyzes the recent production of Nilo Cruz’s Hortensia and the Museum of Dreams, illuminating how the play stages the internalized dislocation of Operation Pedro Pan exiles. In her entry on espíritismo rituals, Dr. Solimar Otero posits spiritualism practices as a site of transcultural memory and locates the medium’s body in a pathway of affect that retraces diasporas across time, space, and painful histories of colonialism and slavery. Finally, Dr. Jorge Luis Morejón discusses the innovation of new acting techniques created by Miami-based theater artists in staging the work of Cuban avant-garde playwrights.
In addition to presentations by the above mentioned contributors on the Dreaming in Cuban panel, internationally renowned performer Micha Espinosa presented a powerful critique of the commodification of bodies in U.S. based classroom by contrasting it with reflections from her experiences of teaching voice in Cuba. Dr. Laurie Frederik Meer also presented a jarring look at “New Cuba Stories” during post-special period theater with El Ciervo Encantado's recent endurance performance art piece, Rapsodia para el mulo. Each presenter gave a distinct glimpse of how dreaming, remembering, or feeling some aspect of Cuba in performance was mediated through sensations—both painful and pleasurable—that performers, characters, students, objects, and spirits carried with them.
In my research on Reinaldo Arenas’ collection of experimental theater pieces titled Persecución, I found that the pain and sensuality that evoke Cuba are coupled with an impulse to transcend the material body as the only possible means of escape. In Teatro Prometeo's 1985 production of Arenas’s Ella y Yo, the twenty-two-year-old director Nilo Cruz staged the piece as theater of cruelty, an approach that would have been very complementary to Arenas’ play, which poses a critique of bio-politics, or political institutions that make and shape the subjects of modern nation states through regulation of the body. Within the avant-garde traditions touching Cuba and the Cuban diaspora, discussed further by Jorge Morejón in his work, one key concern of the theater of cruelty is the revelation of a true internal or metaphysical self beneath the surface of social scripts and “facial masks.”
Ella y Yo is a dialogue representing an internal struggle between two abstract characters: Yo, who is the psychological self, and Ella, who is the voice of the ever present despair that haunts, demoralizes, and gradually eats away at the Yo. Ella and Yo are echoed, mocked, and hounded by a chorus of characters who represent distinct and specific faces from Cuban society—a journalist, a marshal, a soldier, a child dressed in school uniform, etc. The dialogue begins with Yo’s pursuit of refrescos de tamarindo (tamarind soda) on a hot summer day. The onstage world is a dream-like interior space, structured by a surrealist associative logic. Disordered and accelerated, the sense of time in the play dislocates and estranges the political and social behavior presented out of context. The chorus is the most direct example of this estrangement as the members repeat slogans and political jargon at random, often with violent and mechanical gestures. Ella and Yo’s distinct costuming—each wearing a mere loincloth of handwritten manuscript—marks their separation from the mechanical vision of society represented by the chorus. Throughout the play, sensually felt insights into Ella and Yo are revealed in moments when they remove and read from their manuscript loincloths. In one such moment, Yo recites, “Verano, verano. ¿No lo sientes fermentar dentro de nosotros? Cómo nos paraliza y nos deja así, en esto que oscila, que suda, que hace un gesto impreciso.” (“Summer, summer. Do you not feel it fermenting within us? How it paralyzes us and leaves us that way, in this that fluctuates, that sweats, that makes an imprescise gesture.”) The writing on the loincloths is not a scripting of the body by bio-political power as with the chorus, rather they cover over, touching the body, but still remain separate from it. In order for this intimate knowledge to remain autonomous, authentic, and intact, it must somehow remain outside of the body, albeit existing contiguously in contact with it.
The manuscript loincloths in Ella y Yo are one variation of a motif that repeats throughout Arenas’ Persecución where the act of writing becomes an experience that transcends the body and gives the writer a space to reconnect with their authentically felt consciousness—a consciousness that is recognized through bodily sensations. The acts of writing in Arenas’ Persecución must be understood as a kind of dreaming, a space where bodily sensations can be experienced free from the dehumanizing constraints that estrange the body. Rather than geographic exile, where the persecution Arenas was subjected to in Cuba was replaced by another kind of persecution in the United States, the escape from the material body enacted in Ella y Yo stages a liminal suspension from modern alienation experienced under any political state. Drawing on theater’s capacity to transform the order of the world around us, Arenas’ experimental plays dislodge the hold of political institutions over subjectivity and propose a rethinking of exile, presenting audiences in 1985 with a chance to recognize and reconcile the part of themselves which exceeded the divisive, limiting, and ossifying politics of Cuban exile in Miami.