I do not know. I do not remember. These are the words of a man looking back on his life: a young man haunted by shame and the pain of losing a part of himself as he lost his family. They become part of a collective amnesia and the impulse, as we thread back though time, to regain what we all have lost – our innocence. But then again the question is asked, were we ever innocent or do we come into this world imprinted already by the guilt and failures of our confused parents?
This is what writer and director Carlos Celdrán charts for us in his minimalist and brave autobiographical drama 10 Million. The play, part of the Artes de Cuba festival playing at the John F. Kennedy Center, carries us back to a time when Cuba was in the throes of revolutionary fervor. Fidel Castro’s island nation was forging a society where everything was starkly seen as black or white and people were sharply divided for and against.
This is a play about how that affected one family. The mother, an avowed communist, finds a role in that new society where smart women can rise to legitimate power, and as Capitán she dedicates her life to making Castro’s experiment a success. The father is a disillusioned intellectual who is relegated to the margins of that world and who, through their divorce, must also be made marginalized in his son’s life until he is pushed in a desperate attempt to leave.
The boy, Celdrán’s former “self,” recreated in the author’s imagination and through the efforts of the talented young actor Daniel Romero, take us into the pain of a childhood broken by familial and societal conflict. Through the great dark pools of Romero’s eyes, we see his suffering and we relive the lies that are told the child not only by the parents but by therapists and the school officials where he was sent. Shuffled from one to another, the boy is analyzed and “broken to be cured,” re-made into a manly man as part of the brain washing and brutalizing that occurs in these tucked-away laboratories to teach small boys to become hardened bullies and fearful thieves, all in the service of a new society.
The play startled me, taking me back to a time when I was watching the South African Market Theatre of Barney Simon, Athol Fugard and actors John Kani and Winston Ntshona exported to London, New York, Boston, and Washington D.C. More surprising than that many of those associated with Market Theatre were imprisoned was that the government let some of the plays out of South Africa. The works shed a glaring light on the apartheid system of South Africa for all the world to see. Similarly, I find it most curious that 10 Million is allowed to be exported from Cuba for the way it shows, among other things, the kind of abuses that take place when all things, including innocent human beings, are sacrificed and the “norms” relegated by that society begin to crack.
This performance has closed
“10 million” refers to the 1970 campaign to harvest ten million tons of sugar that turned out to be a complete disaster. Until this play I had not heard of it. I do not know. I do not understand. Collective amnesia? But like the growing list of disasters in our own state, I wonder if we are becoming numb to what we knew as truth before. I can’t but think when the cracks are so big it is only a matter of time when the edifice crumbles.
The set, like the play, feels bare and even thin at first. The playwright-director also designed the set and clearly shows his hand in a theatrical style more like the deconstructions of New York’s lower east side theater in the eighties and influenced by Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed rather than what often gets told and sold on Kennedy Center’s stages and other major Broadway road-show houses as “theatre of excess.” (10 Million was a show undersold and therefore sadly missed by too many, the house being barely one-third full.)
A simple gray wall, broken only by a step-up and a second level seating platform, served as the whole set. The painted surface was chalkboard friendly and so scene titles were hand-written on the wall. Chalk scribbled becomes all at once the playwright’s organization of his drama, instructions of the child by his teachers and therapists, and, for the English-speaking audience, a Spanish lesson. Sueños. Ecuentros. Terapias. Album.
Throughout the performance, the layers kept intentionally blurring as the piece deepened.
The whole performance is carried by four dedicated actors from the ensemble of Celdrán’s Argos Teatro. Maridelmis Marin looks every inch the professional Capitán. She spews criticism and orders at her son as if she is leveling a volley of machine gun fire. Her determination to dedicate herself to building a society has come at great personal cost. Her mantra: Yo no tengo tiempo.
Caleb Casas as the father, who has been thrust from his marriage and his son, is touching in his powerlessness as a man doing all he can not to raise the level of animosity and further stress his kid out. The scenes between him and his son when they are alone in the father’s home in the rare privileges of a summer visit capture both the awkwardness and the magical physical closeness of time spent together.
Waldo Franco fills in all the other characters, including assorted therapists and tutors to tell the story. What is a little more confusing for a time is that he is also the author, seen on stage before the show started with folded arms staring out into the audience. So he is the boy looking back at himself, perhaps even critical of his stance. Is he asking, “How could he not have known or understand?”
I found myself deeply moved. The play was much more than political theatre presenting a curiosity of time and place. Celdrán and his cast of accomplished actors accomplished the toughest mission of drama: to follow unflinchingly the emotional truth of a story without gimmick or comment. In that, they achieved a classic unity and a universal connection to our shared humanity.
10 Million, which ran for only two days, has closed.
Artes de Cuba – 10 Million. Written, Directed and Set Designed by Carlos Celdrán. Lighting Designed by Manolo Garriga. Costume Design by Vladimir Cuenca. Produced by Argos Teatro. Presented by The John F. Kennedy Center as part of Artes de Cuba. With Daniel Romero, Maridelmis Marin, Caleb Casas, and Waldo Franco. Produced by Argos Teatro . Presented by The Kennedy Center . Reviewed by Susan Galbraith