Family Ties and The Mariel Boatlift

Exiles Pic

Five men and one woman traveling from Cuba to Florida are stranded on a fishing boat aimlessly drifting off course after a troublesome storm. They are exiles from Cuba during the summer of 1980. Captain Rolando Conesa is rescuing estranged family members with his son, Roli. They are not aware that they have been set up by Cuba to remove a lunatic (known as The Lunatic) and a criminal, Pepito. Moreover, Rolando’s mother was already dead and he must also bring back Joaquin Espinosa, his brother-in-law, who betrayed his sister (Rolando’s wife) in favor of Castro’s revolutionary part twenty years prior, causing their defection to the United States.

Nothing but tension characterizes them on this boat. Rolando blames everything on Joaquin and wants violently to get even. The lunatic chimes in with multiple personalities–his own internal tension is worse than the personalities on the boat–and nobody really digs him. Pepito of course is just waiting for his moment to take control, like a good criminal. And there happens also to be a young, beautiful woman, the daughter of Joaquin, Saadia, whom Roli fixates on and tries to win over.

Indeed, this is a gripping set of personal dilemmas with an historical narrative, in fact being performed on the 34th Anniversary of the Mariel Boatlift, a domestic political and economic crisis with hundreds of thousands of dissatisfied Cubans seeking asylum elsewhere. Cuban-Americans with family were permitted to return with their own boats and retrieve them. The unspoken catch was that “undesirables” were forced on those boats, and this is why the lunatic and Pepito are there.

Saadia hates being on this boat, partially because she fears for her life, but also because even if she does make it, her life is over: she has given up everything because of some family members she doesn’t even know and for a country she has been conditioned to despise. She is on her way to becoming a professor in Cuba, she is enriched with friends and everything else.

Such is the tension of exiles. On the one hand, a place of poverty and immobility where people are good to each other and basic needs like education are provided for, Cuba, and the other, America, a place of forward mobility, where people are competitive and you must earn your basic needs or in fact reverve that mobility. Immigrants from Cuba tend to deal with that internal tension on a daily basis, and that is what this play is about.

The playwright is Carlos Lacamara, known famously as an American actor. His parents fled the Cuban Revolution when he was too young to recall it. Carlos is witness to that internal identity struggle in his parents, he knows empathically what that is like. A young man in his twenties during the Mariel Boatlift, perhaps he best imagines himself like Roli, a naive American whose life traces to Cuba but lives the American Dream.

The set is pretty interesting. Scene changes are determined by fragmented digital projections against the wall. All scenes take place on this boat and a technical team keeps it moving–which of course helps a lot to jog the imagination on this minimal set.

Sound design is somehow transparent, because I hardly noticed it. This is great actually, because it blends in and ties every scene change together. Very little music is included, but the necessary sound effects and moods are there. The lunatic imagines his freedom as the sweet release of life adrift in the vastness of an ocean. How music, projections, and lighting are used to give that illusion of drift, I really enjoyed. The performance includes many scene and mood shifts like that.

The play does have some weak links, especially in the ending, which came abruptly. In some respects, it feels out of context in the twenty-first century. Of course, I have been studying and writing a series about ISIL, the Syrian Civil War, and crisis in Iraq. Aspects of Cuban revolutionaries and the Free Syrian Army for example, are very alike, even if ideologically different. I was engrossed in this present-day revolution, yet I am watching an historical narrative older than myself. Fortunately, my love for history takes over and I find myself appreciating this story.

Saadia is reading her paperback copy of Catcher in the Rye. As a teenager, it was my favorite book too. It made me want to read it again. The interpretation of that story illuminates a core difference between American and Cuban ideology–if not maternal versus paternal. Saadia views it as the need to protect children from the loss of innocence, the phoniness of adulthood, especially the American brand of it. Roli views it as the need to allow children to hurt themselves, to grow up, to become strong and independent. Freedom is not found in escape.

I suppose I relate to this play that way. Sometimes it falls down and scuffs its knee, but it is a matter of growth, of becoming. The most creative aspects of this performance are determined by its limitations, just like your personal character. Interestingly, the Cubans turn out to be most creative as they fight for their lives on the boat.

Exiles was Directed by Damaso Rodriguez and will continue through October 26, 2014 at the Artists Repertory Theater.




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