AMERICAN THEATRE | Revisiting the Elián Drama at Miami New Drama

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Rene Granado, Andhy Mendez, and Cristina Ortega in “Elián” at Miami New Drama. (Photograph by Andres Method)

Practically 1 / 4 of a century in the past, on Nov. 25, 1999, whereas many Individuals had been watching a Thanksgiving Day parade and soccer, two fishermen rescued a 5-year-old Cuban boy, Elián González, as he clung to an internal tube three miles off the coast of Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. He was among the many few survivors of an try by a bunch of Cuban nationals to cross to the U.S. in a defective boat; his mom and 10 others had drowned within the effort.

Elián González.

His rescue sparked a global custody battle that performed out every day on the information. Nearly 23 years later, it’s the topic of Rogelio Martinez’s new play Elián, which runs Oct. 27-Nov. 20 at Miami New Drama in Florida, within the metropolis the place the drama unfolded. It’s the place the place, the day after his rescue, Elián went to dwell together with his uncle and different family. The Cuban authorities, and Elián’s father, wished him again in Cuba, whereas the U.S. and his stateside household claimed him. The battle stoked lingering Chilly Warfare resentments between communist Cuba and the U.S.

“It’s very dramatic stuff,” mentioned Michel Hausmann, Miami New Drama’s creative director, who can also be directing Elián, in a cellphone interview throughout a break from rehearsals. And, according to the theatre’s mission to make work in dialog with its metropolis’s distinctive multicultural and multilingual neighborhood, which has led them to supply Billy Corben and Aurin Squire’s Confessions of a Cocaine Cowboy and Carmen Pelaez’s The Cuban Vote, amongst different performs, Hausmann mentioned he has lengthy wished to deliver Elián’s story to Miami New Drama. Each time he mentions Elián among the many metropolis’s Cuban neighborhood, Hausmann mentioned, “It feels prefer it’s an unhealed wound it’s laborious for individuals to wish to return to. We felt an enormous accountability to deliver the story of those occasions and the story of the neighborhood in a approach that honors the reality that the neighborhood feels was robbed from them.” Specifically he wished a play that will get past the “media circus” that performed out in 1999 and 2000 to reckon with each the emotional and political sides of Elián’s story.

He discovered the right collaborator in Martinez, he mentioned. The 2 had been launched a number of years in the past by a mutual pal, who thought Miami New Drama was an excellent house for a play of Martinez’s known as Come As You Are. Miami New Drama produced a workshop of it, after which in December 2020 included Martinez among the many playwrights of 7 Lethal Sins, seven commissioned brief performs, every targeted on one lethal sin, in vacant storefronts alongside Miami Seaside’s Lincoln Highway (the place the theatre can also be situated). It was among the many most formidable in-person skilled theatre productions at that stage of COVID-19 pandemic.

What made Martinez the best playwright to inform Elián’s story, although, was his personal background. Like Elián, Martinez got here together with his mom to the U.S. from Cuba; he turned 9 a number of days earlier than he received on the boat to Miami in the course of the Mariel boatlift in 1980. He was supposed to return together with his father and grandmother as nicely, however on the final minute navy police got here and informed his father he was not allowed to go away the nation as a result of he had a level from the College of Havana. His mother and father then needed to decide: Would they keep as a household or go away his father in Cuba? His father determined to allow them to go. Years later, the wedding led to divorce. Martinez solely noticed his father twice after leaving Cuba.

“He might have put his foot down at that second,” Martinez mirrored in a cellphone interview. “He might have mentioned no. That’s a troublesome factor to wrestle with as a toddler, as an adolescent, as a younger grownup, and now as a father. It wasn’t till I turned a father that I might see the world from my father’s perspective. I might see how painful it should have been to let go. I didn’t perceive that. Selections that change lives ceaselessly are what drama’s about.”

Playwright Rogelio Martinez and director Michel Hausmann in rehearsal for “Elián.”

This expertise led Martinez to focus a lot of his performs on the decades-long battle between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Born in East Berlin took its inspiration from Bruce Springsteen’s legendary live performance in East Germany in 1988, a 12 months earlier than the Wall got here down, and was first carried out on the Stasi Museum in Berlin in 2019 earlier than premiering on the San Francisco Playhouse in 2020. In Blind Date, which premiered at the Goodman Theatre in 2018, Martinez portrayed a summit between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev assembly to halt the arms race. And When Tang Met Laika, which premiered on the Denver Middle Theatre in 2010, follows a bunch of former Chilly Warfare adversaries as they work collectively on the Worldwide Area Station.

“The Chilly Warfare modified the course of my life ceaselessly,” Martinez mentioned. “In the future I used to be dwelling in Cuba with my household—father, mom, grandmothers—and the following I used to be dwelling in the USA, fleeing political repression and retribution. Till I first began to take care of the politics of the interval on paper, I used to be wrestling with trauma that had not been handled correctly.”

Elián continues this exploration, each politically and personally. As Hausmann identified, whereas the Chilly Warfare ostensibly ended with the autumn of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, “For Cuban Individuals in Miami and for Cubans in Havana, the Chilly Warfare was alive and kicking” in 1999.

When Martinez arrived in the USA, he lived briefly in Miami with family, then with different family in Michigan, till the household lastly settled in Union Metropolis, N.J., which had the most important focus of Cuban Individuals of any U.S. metropolis exterior of Miami. Known as “Little Havana on the Hudson,” Union Metropolis had a Cuban American inhabitants of roughly 15,000 by 1994. His return to Miami for Elián is a kind of homecoming for him, although there’s an excellent deeper return happening.

“After I hear Spanish in my play, I change into emotional,” Martinez mentioned. “I notice simply how a lot I’ve missed listening to it. My earlier 4 performs had no Spanish, whereas all my early work had Spanish.”

Cristina Ortega and Jonathan Nichols-Navarro in “Elián” at Miami New Drama. (Photograph by Andres Method)

Hausmann and Martinez have been engaged on Elián for the reason that begin of the pandemic in March of 2020. In that point Miami New Drama despatched Martinez to fulfill members of the neighborhood and neighborhood leaders, together with Manny Diaz, the lawyer for the González household; Pepe Hernandez, the president of the Cuban American Nationwide Basis; Alex Penelas, the mayor of Miami-Dade County on the time; Marty Baron, the editor of the Miami Herald on the time; and Carlos de la Cruz, a neighborhood chief requested by U.S. Legal professional Basic Janet Reno to assist in the negotiation.

Martinez’s background as a journalist proved useful on this analysis. What he discovered in these conversations was that there was a extra complicated story than the one which was informed within the media on the time.

“We did a deep dive and immersed ourselves investigating the occasions we’re telling,” Hausmann mentioned. “We really feel it’s a scoop. It’s a perspective that has by no means been informed earlier than.”

A few of the inaccuracies they present in outdated TV information footage and newspapers, each from the U.S. and Cuba, centered on Elián’s relationship to his U.S. household in the USA. The media portrayed Elián as getting into a home of strangers in Miami, however he probably knew his family and had frolicked together with his nice uncle in Cuba earlier than he got here to the U.S. 

The play has a big solid of characters from politics, the media, and the González household. Martinez mentioned his propensity for giant casts is impressed by his love of Robert Altman’s movies, notably Nashville, through which a number of storylines all result in one huge convergent second. However one main character by no means seems onstage: Elián himself. This absence could also be meant to make audiences replicate on the way in which he was used as an emblem by many individuals and political actors on the time. “We’re making a theatrical alternative,” Martinez conceded. “If we had been doing this for tv it could be a special alternative, and possibly the kid could be there.”

For his half, Hausmann likened Elián to Sophocles’s Antigone, through which a central character, Polyneices, is offstage and the main target is on the wrangling over what to do together with his physique.

“What makes Antigone such an excellent play?” Hausmann mused. “The reply to that I believe is that you’ve got somebody like Creon who created a legislation, the legislation says you possibly can’t bury a traitor. He’s proper, it’s the legislation, it is sensible. However you’ve any individual like Antigone who says, ‘Effectively, that is my brother. It’s a must to bury him, even when it’s towards the legislation, it’s the proper factor to do—the legislation is incorrect.’ So you possibly can argue each side. With Elián you’ve one thing related in the neighborhood, the place you’ve any individual who says a toddler belongs to his father, and the opposite argument is that, sure, the mom gave her life in order that her baby may very well be in a free society. I believe that the exploration of each is what makes nice theatre.”

Elián’s saga lasted about six months, from late November of 1999 till April of 2000, when, throughout a pre-dawn raid, armed U.S. federal brokers seized Elián from his family’ house and reunited him together with his father, who took him again to Cuba two months later. Throughout these two months, there have been court docket proceedings and demonstrations and counter-demonstrations in Miami that had been lined as a part of the 24-hour information cycle. Now, 23 years later, González works for a state-run firm in Cuba and has began a household of his personal there. It will appear that he’s executed his share of reckoning with the occasions of his childhood. Now Elián affords an opportunity for Miami to do its personal reckoning together with his temporary time there.

Shoshana Greenberg (she/her) is a author based mostly in New York Metropolis.

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