Review: Cuban Play “10 Millones” at LATC Is Worth It

“10 Millones” weaves a universal family story with the real political struggles of the Cuban people. (Manolo Garriga)

“10 Millones” weaves a universal family story with the real political struggles of the Cuban people. (Manolo Garriga)

One of the most important cultural institutions in the city of Los Angeles is the Los Angeles Theatre Center (LATC), which is housed in a historical building (originally built in 1916 as bank) located in Downtown and owned by the City of LA Cultural Affairs Department. With its gorgeous 50 ft. x 100 ft. stained glass ceiling lobby, it has been run since 2006 by the Latino Theater Company, founded in 1985 Jose Luis Valenzuela who acts as its Artistic Director.

The four-theater complex (with a fifth studio space), which vary in sizes, has featured world and local premieres over the past decades to great acclaim, including their Latin-American theater festival, Encuentros de Las Americas/Encounters of The Americas, which celebrates its third anniversary with plays and performances by 14 companies from throughout Latin America, the USA and Canada.

As a Cuban-American, one of the works that struck my interest was the play “10 Millones” by the Havana-based Argos Theatre, written and directed by Cuban playwright Carlos Celdrán as a semi-biographical account of his life in Cuba during the tumultuous times of the ‘70s and ‘80s under the current Castro dictatorship.

The simple stage design consisted of a wide, gray, shallow-stepped platform with a backing wall that was used a chalkboard where the titles/themes of each of the mostly monologues by each of the main four characters were written as the story progressed. The roles portrayed included a Boy/the author (Daniel Romero), his Mother (Maridelmis Marín), his Father (Caleb Casas) and a Narrator (Waldo Franco), who also played minor characters, including the repressive arm of the state in several of its incarnations.

In its essence, this is a story of a family that began in pre-Castro Cuba with the marriage of the parents, who subsequently are thrown into turmoil by the Cuban Revolution which forced the people to choose political sides. The Mother character sees the revolution as a way to belong to something greater and increase her profile in the community, even if it means divorcing her middle-class, dissident husband and putting “country” before her own son.

Marin, as the mother, is outstanding in a role that is not very sympathetic, especially when she uses her new-found power against others, including keeping her son from his loving father. Hers is a complex character that begins as a supporter of the communist system and eventually comes to realize that it was all for nothing but at the same time provides no repentance for her behavior.

As the father, Casas conveys fully the love for his son in each moment they are together on stage while feeling the frustration at all the obstacles his ex-wife puts in his path to keep them apart. One of the most important, painful and riveting moment of the play comes when he describes his attempt to leave the country during the infamous Mariel Boatlift of 1980, as part of the initial 10,000 Cuban citizens who stormed and jumped the fence of the Peruvian embassy in Havana in order to request political asylum. The response of the Castro dictatorship was to send marching mobs of people (including his son) in front of the embassy so they could throw eggs, harass and intimidate those in the compound.

Playing an innocent child or teenager must be one of the hardest roles for any adult actor to portray, but Romero, who is 26 years old, was more than up to the task. His tour-de-force performance was a revelation as he navigated complex scenes involving his parents’ feuds while showing superb acting skills as he dealt with own personal demons with aching pain and ingenue. Rounding out the cast was Franco who provided credible, supplemental character roles that put the story in better context.

At the center of all this drama is the poetic, complex writing and simple direction of Celdrán, who manages to weave a universal family story with the real political struggles that the Cuban people have been suffering for almost 60 years at the hands of the Castro dynasty without ever mentioning their name. Some outside of Cuba, especially Cuban-Americans who have similar stories, may take issue about this obvious omission. They must understand though, that there exists a certain level of self-censorship among most of the artists living in Cuba that allows them to create their art without being thrown in jail for “counter-revolutionary” activities.

One can infer that the title of “10 Millones” refers to one of the events that occurred during the play’s timeline. Fidel Castro in 1970 was obsessed with reaching a sugarcane harvest of 10 million tons of sugar as a way to move the country financially out of debt, sending by force any able-bodied person to cut sugarcane in the fields. Other more poetic guesses are that it refers to the 10 million Cubans who at the time lived in and out of the island or to the 10 million scars that this politically divisive, communist government has left the Cuban nation around the world.

Humberto Capiro is a Contributing Writer for Living Out Loud - LA, covering lifestyle and entertainment. Follow him on Twitter: @HumbertoCapiro

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