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Caribbean bodies between theater and performance


Director of the Theater Department of the Casa de las Américas

I am increasingly seduced by the vicissitudes of the Hispanic and insular Caribbean scene, to whose alternative aspect I have dedicated several approaches, among others about what I called the “'other?' Puerto Rican theater”, “Dominican theater in search of himself” or about current Cuban experiences. [1] That feeling encourages me to link the analysis of three proposals by artists from the region: You Don't Look Like, by the Puerto Rican Javier Cardona, Pargo, Los Sins Permitted, by the Dominican Waddys Jáquez, and Blanche Dubois, by the Cuban Marianela Boán.

These are three one-person or almost one-person productions, because although in the second, Pargo..., three other actors appear alongside Jáquez, their characters are conceived more as wild cards that solve practical problems and transitions, dispensable in the central discourse. The three productions somehow avoid the textual dramaturgy prescribed as a starting point, either because they are personal responses to the nonexistence of a useful dramaturgy, in the opinion of these artists, to express what they propose, or because they propose theater as a truly integral space of confluence and balance of languages. Consequently, they are all exponents of dramaturgy of representation, in which the text has been shaped in the creative process, and they place the body and its presence as an essential axis to verify problems that are extremely close to them.

You don't look like, written, directed, and performed by the performer Javier Cardona, more than a theatrical text, it is a script or score of movements and situations, which serves as a guideline to act to denounce racist and classist prejudices. and sexist aspects of Puerto Rican colonial society, as a brilliant metaphor for the manipulation of identities.

In You Don't Look Like, the word is reduced to a minimum and assumes a narrative perspective, with eloquence and irony. [2] The actor unfolds into the multiple possible stereotypes with which the black is conceived in a context eager to whiten himself. Curiously, the notes of this text are written in the first person, because Cardona has limited himself to transcribing the actions he has generated - more than performances, because the performer deliberately makes presentation and representation coexist or alternate - and to fix them in indications, as a reaction visceral in the face of the discriminatory stance of the media and advertising, which only conceive that a black actor like him can promote a new toothpaste from the position of a “civilizing mission”, only accepted with sympathy from a higher perspective and spares lives. The politicized ritual is directly based on his own experience, inscribed in a specific real context when he was called to a casting for an advertisement for a new toothpaste, but it transcends the strictly personal by directing outside stimuli towards an artistic discourse that combines transvestism. and dance, political platforms, and cathartic acts.

The actor appears with a small toy mirror and while looking at himself, he demands: “Mirror, mirror, I want to know if I am too…” The phrase remains suspended and the noun adjective black is postponed again and again, because For the artist, his essence as a human being has been relegated by the topical and folkloristic visions coined by power and the media: cannibal, rumbero, cane cutter, santero, rasta, basketball player, maid, rapper, madam, and wizard king – of course, Melchior. The word black will only be pronounced at the end of the performance, after having gone through all these social constructions problematized by the racist gaze.

Let's look at a fragment of the text:

When I got there, I realized that all the talents, because that's what they call them in that environment, were... this... this... you know... I mean, except for the little girl who was directing the casting. Then I saw that everyone who was standing in front of the camera was talking strangely. I immediately thought that they could be Nuyorricans, I confess, or that they had problems with... pronunciation... diction... what do I know! But, little by little I am realizing that that was exactly what the girl wanted.

“Look at the camera please”

(Like the girl, I address several spectators whom I interview with a Snow White-type hand mirror as if I were recording them with a video camera. I wait for an answer to each question.)

“Say your full name.”

“Have you done anything for the competition before?”

“Okay, now you're going to stare at the camera and say some very simple lines: Bunga, bunga, agua.”

“Remember the character... give it more flavor... more... it's the Caribbean, more... rhythm.”

Luego, through photographic images projected in the background, the actor's body appears transvestited and transformed into colonized identities, to reveal what the word postpones. As Jossiana Arroyo states, these are “...signifiers and socio-cultural orders that 'represent' 'the black': poverty, crime, violence, the sexual-erotic, 'flavor', music, Tambandumba de la Quimbamba, Juan Boria, el folklor”, [3] among others.

The design of the simulation is simple, somewhat rustic, and retains a visible breath of play, which neutralizes any distance imposed by the minimal technological incursion. The body is deconstructed and reconstructed in a fragmented dance, which respects naturalness rather than formalization; The gestures are contradictory and disorganized, in the gradual and at the same time resistant incorporation of the sum of attributes of an alienated vision. The body is also the means of expansion, of ontological liberation, the instrument of realization of the real and multiple identities that Javier Cardona shares or negotiates: Puerto Rican, performer, actor, dancer, black, gay, Caribbean, playwright, eventual Nuyorrican, independence.

Cardona confronts the very powerful world of advertising by taking it with the greatest casualness as a plot motif and by contrasting the exemplary, plastic, and pristine images of it with the starkness of the stereotypes that he globalizes; He parodies luxury marketing by resignifying the non-theatrical objects that he uses (the mirror, a school backpack decorated with the Puerto Rican flag, packets of regular and diet sugar); He also confronts the official culture of his country, which, behind false egalitarian pretensions, tolerates and encourages stereotypes. He vindicates the aesthetics of popular culture, [4] frequently diminished by his self-perceptions, which understand his own as poor, small, coarse, brown, or old.

In Pargo, the Permitted Sins, the Quisqueyan artist Waddys Jáquez structures the narrative performativity of group therapy exchanges and a trashy cabaret spectacular to construct the pathetic and mordant session of the Organized Global Recovery Board. [5] As a Dominican living in New York, Jáquez, [6] who spends his life in an aerial yacht, [7] moving between the half-island that is the Dominican Republic and the Big Apple, recreates the side dark of migration to the north. The piece, built in the big city and premiered in Santo Domingo, is, inside and out - in the construction of the nostalgic look at the past of its characters, and the conditions of representation and meeting with its audience -, a problematic and unique immigration experience.

Waddys forms a unique hybrid that draws on both the traditions of solo performance, stand-up comedy, and the tradition of corporal and anthropological exploration of Latin American theater. The show of misery presents four poor beings from the Nuyork underworld: María Cuchivida, the girl who, standing on a guava tree, saw her eight siblings leave for the North one by one, claimed by the oldest, who asked for all of them except her because she was of legal age. Fed up with her mother's lack of love, Candela, who died in a fire, went with her friend Emperatriz “to Holland”, to work as a babysitter... to breastfeed children between twenty and fifty years old with a nail in a pantyhose, until he managed to get to the Statue of Liberty with a stolen passport. Between touches of crack, marijuana, and alcohol, her entire life up and down, a frustrated poet of adolescence, she thinks that “living every day is a feat, a war that no one wins” and she is terrified of looking back. Papichío Domínguez, the irresistible “Matatán de Borohol”, who has turned fifteen “being a neighbor of Superman, Batgirl and Wonder Woman”, the cool guy who left Quisqueya the Beauty as a cop, in a van inside a merchant ship, [ 8] to attach buttons in a factory and to pay a year for Modesta's death, with the suitcase “down the bed, putting clothes on it and collecting the fare to return”; remember the mother's farewell: " son, take care of yourself and stop being a rebusero, because handsome people die with shoes, and speaking of shoes, I wear eight and your sister Iluminadita wears nine and a half, in tennis' [. ..] Whoever messes with you, rip off his head... Go with Dio'!” The same one dressed in canary yellow satin has assumed Dr. González's motto: “Recovering is walking the rest of your life on a tightrope.” The third character is Zaza, the eternal queen of the neighborhood's underworld, fed up with her reign, she is protuberant and grotesque, a bomb of tropical sensuality, an abortion of nature, according to her Dominican grandmother, called Intervenida, who taught her to that I never said no. She is a compendium of “popular culture” and a victim of globalized banality.

And finally, Pasión Contreras, “a crazy downpour wind” who always knows how to control himself, a being born and raised by chance of destiny in a country, a time and a foreign body, protagonist of a cross over towards the female sex, bearer of silicones and implants, a being that prevails over contempt, convinced that she is “a beautiful woman, locked in the body of an ugly woman,” and that she deserves heaven, because, as she states, “without realizing it, here I built my hell.”

Each one is marked by the condition of displaced people, hustlers, street fighters, and survival; each one is a picturesque construction that combines tragedy and humor, with a language full of local twists, ingenious occurrences of popular wisdom, pseudo-philosophical phrases and cultural references of the worst globalizing aftermath, supported by Latin music. The actor's physical work, with his surprising entrances, performs a visual dynamic, through the peculiar behavioral score that it incorporates for each one. Waddys has written down on his body the gestural essence, the agonizing throbbing of much he has seen in the poor neighborhoods of the Dominican Republic and along New York's 42nd Street, and has reconfigured paradigms – Papichío's rhythmic body, which It always moves in the key of a guaguancó that does not let itself fall, and the incessant tics and swings of the drag queens, the body trained to stalk, flee or strike; the disintegrated, uncontrolled energy of Pasión Contreras. [9] Jáquez creatively interacts with the designs of the plastic artist Hochi Asiático, which model the outside with stridency and brilliance - oversized as corresponds to the profound lack -, which the actor achieves with his surprising versatility.

Waddys is black, like the four characters he characterizes, and curiously that condition is not made explicit in the text, except when Papichío alludes to his mother as “a white woman from Santiago,” in an evident posture of subaltern otherness. I wonder if it is already assumed to be contained, as part of the condition of these Dominican Yorkers, or is it that the performer is also ironically playing with the conflict of self-recognition of the official Dominican gaze, which sees the majority population of the country as mestizo? to black, as “Indian”, and this is stated in the respective official identity documents.

In Blanche Dubois, the Cuban Marianela Boán chooses the protagonist of A Streetcar Named Desire, a role for which she confesses an old fascination, admired by the strength of character that is hidden behind her precarious fragility, and by Blanche's will to defend his past, his utopia, and certain subtle values of personal life lost in the vicissitudes of history. Marianela found behind these traits, close references to many people, and her character helped her to build a presence, which between the parable and the didactic piece, fables the story of her changing identities.

The drawing of the character can be read as a middle-class, refined, and worldly woman, who voluntarily joined the transformations of the Revolution, who made an effort to please others and insert herself into a different context, in the middle of a debate between her values and the new ones that erupted with the new life and the process of growing socialization, for her not all of them pleasant or easy to assimilate. Blanche moves between the rejection of what is different, as a challenging resistance, and a choice that entails sacrifice, confusion and learning towards her convictions. She is the same woman who later, in her maturity, suddenly sees certain essential pillars of her moral and political identity out of place. And she, tired, abdicates and is defeated. From another perspective, performance artist Deborah Hunt has perceived her as a “wild woman in a box,” with “the flag that never covers the body.” [10]

The few phrases used by the performer, taken from Tennessee Williams' text, sometimes as isolated words, have been edited with a fragmentary meaning that blurs them from the original source and recontextualizes them, and the known character becomes a pretext, which Despite the warning in the title, her identity is not revealed until several minutes have passed, when the woman who emerges from the vertical box lined in intense red in which she has been imprisoned upside down, finally defines herself before the public, after an arduous battle to join what is outside, between crawling advances and staggers, pauses and setbacks. She is Blanche, the elegant woman with sunglasses who flirts and moves with affectation, and she could also be Blanquita, as her companions in the revolutionary militia battalion might have called her. Or then, she is the nameless woman who, back from everything, desperate and hanging on the phone, pressures Western Union for financial aid that 

He waits anxiously and it doesn't arrive.

Unlike his previous works with his group DanzAbierta, The Fish in the Tower swims in the asphalt and The Tree and the Road, in which the fundamental contradiction was expressed at a proxemic level in a constant displacement of the bodies up-down, in actions of falling and getting up, here the movement is back-forward, inside-out, with variants of translation at floor level or with the body upright, which moves in a different type of dance, deliberately truncated, imperfect. Choreographically, a non-linear and univocal horizontal mobility is outlined, which will operate as a double set of centrifugal and centripetal forces, and which will mature in the next work, Chorus Perpetuus, seen in Monterrey at the last Encuentro. And that is the pattern that the woman who cannot easily free herself from old ties will follow. She fears what social life imposes on her, and goes through the painful and difficult process of assimilating the changes. And in the end, when she raises the symbols of her permanent values, even though they are, they do not serve to orient herself in the new context. The pained reflection, and at the same time ironic and biting in the underlined burlesque pathos that the actress at times imprints on her, points to essential contradictions of reality and diverse positions regarding them.

The dramaturgy of the objects is meticulous. The trunk drawer is a matrix, I wonder if it is a space of security or a metaphor for the Island, but also a bundle, a coffin, a tribune, a useful hiding place, a screen, a slug's snail. The black flag with gold trim is a symbol of rebellion, epic breath, and persistence of utopia – I cannot escape the memory of certain gestures of Helen Weigel's paradigmatic Mother Courage, seen in an old video of the Berliner Ensemble, nor the quote from ballet Avanzada, in which Alicia Alonso danced raising a red flag. Together with the use of the well-known musical theme from the short documentary by Santiago Álvarez Now, precursor of the video clip, these visual signs awaken infinite associations. The tattered diploma that states “Awarded to: Blanche Dubois for her outstanding work”, placed before our feet on the stage, along with a militia shirt that will be worn by the woman, provokes a multivocal dialogue with the daily life of the past and the present.

Dance and theater merge in a new language, active in dialogue with reality, as in the other pieces. The three proposals are also connected in the use of the body and, through it, the everyday or social gesture, movement, and its organization in a language. What Marianela Boán – who has also contributed valuable theorization of her work – has called contaminated dance, is closely related to the searches of Javier Cardona and the physical bases of Jáquez's exploration.

Coincidentally, You Don't Look Like and Pargo, the permitted sins, are alternative proposals to the structural crisis of the theater group at this time, a situation that has generated in actors the enhancement of writing abilities, production of scores or scripts, conceptions scenic, and others. Marianela makes the most of the possibilities of stability that she can have as a Cuban theater professional and develops the individual potential of her six dancers. [eleven]

In the three experiences summarized, the public space is the area of definition and development of contradictions, in each case carrying a conscious political vocation, so the scene becomes a provocative arena, a debate square for the viewer. Migration, the phenomenon of human displacement, an ancient means of interrelation in the Caribbean region, and increasingly a manifestation of global magnitude, is a nourishing matrix and axis of discussion, because if in Pargo..., the future of stories personal aspects of the four immigrants place it as a causal reason for inevitable fatalism, in You don't look like, the gaze from the outside is seen as an omnipresence of legitimation, and the allusion to beings from other neighboring islands of the Caribbean reappropriates the component of mobility mentioned, which defines the genesis of this regional area, towards which Puerto Rico feels a complex affiliation of belonging. In Blanche Dubois, the protagonist is located, in the context of Cuban political and economic migrations, on the side of those who stayed, an angle perhaps much less considered and studied, but alive in the central perspective of other Cuban productions, such as Weekend in Bahía or Delirio habanero, by Alberto Pedro and Miriam Lezcano (Teatro Mío), or much more recent, such as El baile, by Abelardo Estorino (Hubert de Blanck Company), or The dwarf in the bottle, by Abilio Estévez-Raúl Martín (Teatro of the moon).

Proposals like these activate my interest in investigating the links between theater and performance because they are hybrid expressions, which understand dramaturgy as an organization.

of actions and who do not distinguish between theater and dance, the use of words or gestures. They do not adhere to known paradigms, nor do they respect linearity or temporal continuity, they actively consider the spectators and propose a subversive and intertextual game of language that appropriates popular expressions to merge them with the literary norm. And they also stand out because, inspired by that performer “who knew how to link the corporeal impulse to sound”, and who was on the path towards the body of essence, they also want to build their story of a moment focused here and now, affirm their presence and his voice in a time like this, in permanent crisis. As spaces of human resistance against the global market dominated by the media, they assume a deliberate conceptual perspective and a commitment to life, art, and the society of which they are part.

-          [1] “The Puerto Rican scene seen from outside/inside”, Set n. 106, Havana, May-August 1997, pp. 3-12; “Fifteen voices in search of Dominican theater”, Ensemble n. 116, Havana, January-March 2000, pp. 2-21; “Move the word, ritualize the gesture”, Revolution and Culture no. 1/2001, Havana, January-February, period V, pp. 45-48, and “Chorus Perpetuus: dancing the fullness of man”, Ensemble no. 124, Havana, Jan-Apr. 2002, pp. 58-61.

[2] The text can be consulted in the magazine Conjunto n. 106, Havana, May-August 1997, pp. 47-49. And in Looting. Anthology of cultural production (Dorián Lugo, ed.), Puerto Rico, 2002, s.p.

[3] Cf. Jossianna Arroyo: “Mirror, mirror: race and formation of Puerto Rican identities in You don't look like, by Javier Cardona”, Saqueos. Anthology of cultural production (Dorián Lugo, ed.), Ob. cit., s.p.

[4] “The native popular aesthetic, which escapes the uniform 'modernity' of the media, is called jíbara - for peasant, Kafre - for African, charra - for Mexican. “The national is seen as anachronistic and the native as vulgar, never as important as what is preached in magazines and on movie screens.” Cf. Yanis Gordils: “The Walking Teatreros and the aesthetics of the prismatic mirror”, unpublished. This is a valuable study on the theater project developed between 1986 and 1990 by Rosa Luisa Márquez and Antonio Martorell with students, including Javier Cardona. The title of the essay alludes to the mirror – a toy – as a recurring object in the group's exploration of self-recognition. Referring to the creator in question, he points out: “The essential achievement is to reveal oneself and learn to call each thing by its name to share its true name with others. Javier, for example, discovered that he is black and that he is beautiful like the deity Ogún in the process of personifying the bicolor José Clemente from Ana Lydia Vega's story Otra Maldad de Pateco."

[5] The meaning of the acronym is shared with the notion of snapper as a paid sexual service.


[6] Unlike another performer of Dominican origin, Josefina Báez, who describes herself as a Dominican-York to legitimize and dignify the name in her Dominicanish performance, Jáquez considers herself as “a Dominican, period, who lives in New York, spot". Cf. Josefina Báez: Dominicanish, a performance text, Graphic Art, New York, 2000, and William Vargas: “Happy endings went out of fashion”, interview with Waddys Jáquez, Oh! Magazine, magazine of El Listín Diario, Santo Domingo, September 8, 2001.

[7] I allude and paraphrase Luis Rafael Sánchez, in his notable essay “La guagua aerial”, Editorial Cultural, Río Piedras, 1994.

[8] It is significant how Mary Louise Pratt in her master conference “Globalization and transculturation”, given at the Third Annual Meeting of the Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics, (Lima, July 2002) notes how all globalization begins in the alteration of the factors of human mobility, with the increasingly frequent movements of ex-colonial subjects towards their former metropolises - which, although it needs this diaspora, is not necessarily favorable to it - and refers to how in the 90s a story of recycling of the archives of the 18th-century journey, with police officers and shipwrecked characters.

[9] Cf. Mónica Volonteri: “Pargo or the irruption of truth”, Set no. 123, Havana Oct.-Dec. 2001, pp. 70-73.


[10] Deborah Hunt: “Women working”, En Rojo, Claridad, San Juan, March 9 to 15, 2001, p. 19.


[11] In addition to having incorporated acting and singing into their performance, as in Chorus Perpetuus, some of the members of DanzAbierta, such as José Antonio Hevia and Grettel Montes de Oca, have taken up choreography, encouraged by the director.

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