A play parodying the lengths some Cubans will go to in order to earn a few tourist dollars set against the backdrop of socially critical graffiti is adding punch to Havana’s annual theater festival.
The first-time collaboration between veteran theater director Nelda Castillo, 64, and street artist Yulier Rodriguez, 27, underscores unease among some Cubans with the recent influx of tourists on the cash-strapped, Communist-run island.
The interdisciplinary spectacle, “Â¡Guan melÃn!, Â¡tu melÃn!,” is also an example of the innovative ways Cubans are pushing the boundaries of critical expression.
Rodriguez’s eerie murals of creatures that look malnourished and malformed had become ubiquitous throughout Havana over the last three years, reflecting his view of the dark path upon which society was.
But the artist said authorities detained him for two days in August and ordered him to stop painting in public spaces.
Graffiti is seen as vandalism in many countries, although Rodriguez suspects authorities stopped him more because they did not like the content of his work.
“Now I am limited in what I can do in the streets, any space where I can exhibit my work becomes a space of resistance for me,” said Rodriguez.
Castillo, who often collaborates with visual artists, said she invited Rodriguez to paint the walls of the renowned El Ciervo Encantado theater because she knew his graffiti would enrich her play.
“The piece is about the Cubans’ struggle in the street in the context of the new relations with the United States and the influx of American visitors,” she said. “His work is also about that struggle in the street.”
In the play that was first staged last year, a skinny and squat comic duo attempt frantically to entertain tourists arriving on cruise ships with Cuban tunes and to sell them outsized cigars and paper cones of peanuts.
A student with a manic fake smile, rudimentary English and a hypersexualized walk sells chocolate and offers salsa lessons, city tours and cabaret acts “as way to make ends meet.”
In a beleaguered economy which shrank last year and where the average state salary is $30 a month, the tourist sector is a relative gold mine.
Castillo said Rodriguez’s graffiti – eerie, scared and hungry-looking creatures with four eyes, two gaping mouths or a crown of skulls – was like another protagonist in the play.
“Dialogue is always enriching as long as it is coherent,” said Castillo.
The two kept quiet about their collaboration until the day it opened to the public, at the start of the theater festival that runs from Oct. 20-29.
“Fingers crossed no one from up top orders the graffiti to be erased,” said Rodriguez.