Street Theater

Praying With the Enemy

Only in Miami does the theater of daily life compete with professional theater for the spotlight -- and win. On the way to see the Coconut Grove Playhouse's production of Praying With the Enemy, I witness what could be a motorcade, if something were leading it. Flags are everywhere: American flags, Cuban flags, even some Colombian flags. Flags are flying behind cars. They are being hefted by young boys who sport even more flags on their Tommy jeans and shirts. Flags are sitting on street corners in ten-gallon buckets where last week there were roses.

All the usual suspects are present: Los Marielitos rev up their spotless, shiny, jacked-up Ford pickups at the light. Whose flag is bigger? There are the old-timers in Buicks and Oldsmobiles so big they drift rather than ride down Calle Ocho. The bumper stickers are stamped with the shape of Cuba and the words "No me voy. No me voy. No me voy." OK. No te vayas. Don't go back to that island if you don't want to. Yucas in their BMWs have found a shop in the Falls of South Miami-Dade that carries cell phones with little flags that pop up when they ring. Now they can be hip and protest at the same time. Let's not forget the refugees from período especiale, those who have come from Cuba within the past ten years. They honk occasionally to show their enthusiasm -- or did they just get caught up in traffic on their way to Café Nostalgia. What?! They moved Café Nostalgia to Miami Beach? ¡Coño! And then there's everyone else: the Cubans who aren't on the road waving flags (the majority, actually), the other citizens of South Florida (some who are in Coconut Grove protesting the protest), and the rest of the world, which happens to be watching us.

Welcome to Theater Miami -- admission is free (though it's good to have a credit card), dramatic tension is guaranteed, but expect limited plot resolution, unabashed melodrama, slow service at the concession stand, and a very outspoken, outrageous, and cantankerous audience. The Coconut Grove Playhouse's production of Praying with the Enemyis a reminder that here the stage is not what separates reality and fiction. Rather the theatrical stage is a coconspirator to the many stages in South Florida, where at any given time any number of potential realities are being played out simultaneously. Unlike most Chicano and Latin-American theater and art, Praying With the Enemy is not a play about the assimilation experience in the United States. No other exile group could be said to be so close geographically and yet so estranged from their place of birth than Cuban-Americans. Praying With the Enemy addresses this irony with even more irony, which comes partly from playwright Luis Santeiro's characteristically evenhanded insight and from hilarious acting by the cast.

Praying With the Enemy reaches out and grabs the audience  --  especially in light of recent events
Praying With the Enemy reaches out and grabs the audience -- especially in light of recent events

Praying With the Enemy, directed by Michael John Garces, takes place in January 1998, during the pope's historic visit to Cuba. It is the story of two couples. Arturo and Adriana (Gilbert Cruz and Josie de Guzman) are wealthy Cuban-Americans visiting the island for the first time since they left as children. The second pair are islanders. There's Omar (Gonzalo Madurga), who, much to the disgrace of his wife, let his baseball team defect on a visit to the United States and now drives a taxi for tourists. And there's his wife, Cuqui (Eileen Galindo), a communist cooking-show host.

Every week she must come up with a new potato recipe that doesn't involve bourgeois ingredients such as butter, milk, and meat. Cuqui is the parody of a system that can no longer feed its citizens yet insists on touting its revolutionary horn. As Cuqui explains, "These recipes are revolutionary because all of these products are available to everyone." Galindo's way of putting on sardonic, pasted-on smiles and sour faces and spitting out her food, harks back to the slapstick of Lucille Ball.

Cynthia (Kim Ostrenko), Cuqui's American counterpart, hosts an upscale cooking show and has been sent to Cuba to cover the pope's visit from the culinary/aesthetic angle. Her Martha Stewart-like persona carries more layers as the play progresses. In an attempt to prove she is capable of serious journalism, Cynthia hires Cuqui's gigolo son, Lenny (played by Oscar Isaac), to show her the real Cuba and ends up making a guest appearance on Cuqui's show. Meanwhile (as if more irony is needed) as Omar escorts the Cuban-American couple around, he discovers Adriana once lived in a mansion that is now his apartment building. The juxtaposition of the two cooking-show hosts and the two couples is an excellent vehicle for the play's real agenda: a satire of capitalism versus communism and the façade that each creates for itself through the use of media and propaganda.

Any play that contrasts Cuba with Miami has ready-made dramatic tension. At the same time, though, Santeiro's piece is humorous and poignant and one that, in the end, calls for ideological beliefs to be the motivators for more dialogue and less intolerance. Strong acting on the part of the entire cast and some surprising plot shifts keep Praying With the Enemy from being didactic, no small feat considering the subject matter. It would have been interesting to develop the play's actual premise -- the pope's visit -- and to explore the implications of that visit after more than 30 years of state-imposed atheism. Another drawback is that Santeiro has chosen the most obvious and easily stereotyped characters, a choice which has its consequences. How about showing an African-American's visit to Cuba, a nation that's about 50 percent black, whose revolution supposedly wiped out racism? How about a Generation Ñ Cuban-American? How about a Cuban-American who is not from Miami? The same goes for the Cubans Santeiro has depicted. Practicing Marxists make up about 5 percent of the island's population.

Just outside the U.S. Oficina de Intereses (the official-unofficial American Embassy) in Cuba sits a huge billboard depicting two shores separated by an ocean. On one stands a tall, skinny Uncle Sam-type character. (Guess who?) On the other side, his army fatigues-clad, cigar-smoking counterpart (you know who) stands under a palm tree. The sign reads, "Señores Imperialistas: No les tenemos ningun miedo." (Mr. Imperialists, we are not in the least bit afraid of you.) During a recent trip there, a Cuban-American friend told me Cubans often walk by that sign and mutter, under their breath: "But what we do feel is a lot of envy." Praying With the Enemy captures this abrasive and bitterly ironic humor, which is characteristic of Cubans in and out of exile, on and off the stage, politically, culturally, and otherwise.

Maybe because recent events have reminded us of the theatrical realities in life, the Coconut Grove Playhouse on May 7 presented a postshow workshop called "Hypothetical History: A Discussion Centered on the Cuban Immigration." The Playhouse invited academics and journalists to lead an audience discussion on how to unite "this diverse community by reducing the cultural and social fragmentation" that is straining South Florida. This is not play-acting -- or is it?

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