Context as content: the work of Abel González Melo

by Yael Prizant

in Artistry & Artistic Innovation,National Conference

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 (This post is a part of the Artistic Innovation blog salon curated by Caridad Svich for the 2013 TCG National Conference: Learn Do Teach in Dallas).

While one might credit creativity for inspiring innovation, Havana has led me to believe that something else drives originality.  My research has centered on Cuban theatre for the last ten years.  In that time on stages throughout Havana, I have seen period costumes made entirely of rigid cardboard, a set made out of tattered suitcases, dozens of power outages that delayed rehearsals and/or cancelled performances, and audience members graciously sharing programs because paper was scarce.  Difficult daily living conditions affect how all theatre is made in Cuba and greatly influences the advent of artistic innovations.

Cuban playwright Abel González Melo writes about the underbelly of Cuban society, about its harsh realities and relationships.  His plays Chamaco and Talco (part of the Fugas de invierno trilogy) are elegant and brutal portraits of the street and of deep yearnings. His characters all have intensely personal relationships with Havana and its rhythms.  Every character lives in this city defined by light, in the dingy, eerie fluorescent glow of Havana or its environs.  Darkness and shadows highlight the relentless clarity, obscurity and shading in the lives González Melo creates.  The beautiful city, and its hardships, becomes a central character whose many locations serve as layers of its intricate personality.    

Beyond the local, González Melo’s characters encounter the world as Cubans.  They grasp and reflect their island’s skewed interactions with trade and tourism, its housing shortages, its limited job prospects, its lively and interactive culture.  The transgressions his characters commit against one another are far more raw and disturbing than any illegal acts González Melo depicts.  These people strive before us and suffer setbacks.  Their loneliness, their distance from others and each other, and their desire to connect is collective, recognizable, basic.

The characters in González Melo’s plays respond to daily problems of access, necessity, entrapment and longing.  The exterior environments onstage (parks, the sidewalk, etc.) feel just as confining as the cramped, interior spaces portrayed.  Both Chamaco and Talco incorporate enormous numbers of verbs because the people before us must be active – they earn, they get, they yearn, they find, they fix, they try.  But most distinctively, they think on stage.  Gonzaléz Melo creates characters who don’t simply enact, but who think in front of an audience.  They have palpable biographies and lives full of experiences far beyond the stage that are often included in film noir style stage directions.  Chamaco and Talco use these to illustrate processes that occur over several days.  The plays emphasize the spaces between initial thoughts, further considerations and decisions, and final results as seen in behaviors.  We can usually follow his characters’ (somewhat distorted) logic.  Some characters are resilient yet their weaknesses surface, while others are delicate but take momentous stands.  These deliberations happen before our eyes and are exposed by the language González Melo uses.  We see and hear these characters choose how to interpret each other, seduce each other, engage each other, abuse each other, oppose each other, manipulate each other, and ultimately, love each other.

González Melo’s acumen for capturing the challenges on the island is essential to his work and its larger appeal.  Both Chamaco and Talco demand an intimate knowledge of Cuban contexts, if only so we may link the plays to other locales and experiences.  The extraordinary specificities, complexities and magnitude of these stories inspire their potential for connections among numerous audiences.  Case in point, Chamaco has been produced all over the world, including in Germany and Turkey, and was also made into a feature length film directed by Juan Cremata.  A production directed by Carlos Celdran is currently on stage in Madrid, where Spaniards struggling with high unemployment and austerity measures can easily relate to its circumstances.  It’s no surprise that Talco, produced in Madrid in 2012 (and in Miami in 2010, deftly directed by Alberto Sarraín) was a great critical success.

All of González Melo’s plays defy closure.  In any language, audiences are left with more questions than answers, altogether uncertain about what is disreputable and/or who is delinquent.  These tightly wound works are reminiscent of getting a bruise; the hit that causes the initial pain leaves a mark that looks much, much worse the next day, or the day after that.  The sting lingers.  Every character González Melo writes is implicated, every act is accessory to the crimes (legal or not) onstage, and every witness, including those in the audience, is embroiled.

Gonzaléz Melo’s characters are, thankfully, translatable.  Their points of view, circumstances, feelings, choices and consequences can be rendered elsewhere.  What is difficult to convey is not Havana itself, but how characters are guided by this environment – how Cuba and its particular conditions shape them.  The urgent inclusion of an intimacy with an unambiguous environment is González Melo’s innovative intervention, his primary yet erudite contribution to the evolution of modern drama.

Yael Prizant is a theatrical translator, dramaturg and educator. Her upcoming book Cuba Inside Out: Revolution and Contemporary Theatre (Southern Illinois University Press, 2014) investigates the effects of revolution and globalization on questions of identity. She has translated works by Cuban playwright Abel Gonzalez Melo, including Chamaco, Nevada and Talco. She is currently an Assistant Professor in the department of Film, Television, and Theatre at the University of Notre Dame. She earned her doctorate from UCLA and her M.F.A. in Dramaturgy from UMASS, Amherst.