Things to do in Miami: “GringoLandia” at the Arsht Center January 14-30, 2022

For Cuban Americans who live in South Florida, Cuba remains a source of deep emotion. The island nation just 90 miles from Key West exemplifies a proud heritage, cherished memories, terrible loss and more.

Hannah Benitez, a Cuban-American / Jewish playwright (as well as actor, musician, and novelist) who grew up in Miami, knows that every person’s Cuba is distinctive, that a homeland laden with so much beauty and sadness may not sound the same. path for different generations.

This truth is at the heart of GringoLandia: a Cuban journey, the sometimes wild, observant and undeniably funny family saga of Benitez as a world premiere. Commissioned by Zoetic Stage, the multimedia piece will premiere on January 13 and open on January 14 for airing through January 30 at the Carnival Studio Theater at the Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami.

The seeds of Yankeeland were planted behind the scenes when Benitez appeared in Zoetic’s production in 2018 Fun house As an actor. She had taken a trip to Cuba with her father the year before and shared with artistic director Stuart Meltzer the idea that became the play: a father who left Cuba as a child takes his daughter and son. in his twenties born in Miami on the island in search of a family heirloom.

“I thought she had such a gift, an understanding of how to conduct drama without forgetting humor, which is rare in a young writer,” Meltzer said. “She’s very dry, and you get it when she talks. I fell in love with her and her excitement for it.”

Benitez studied dramatic writing as part of the high school program at the New World School of the Arts in Miami, under Moonlight Oscar winner Tarell Alvin McCraney and The royal playwright Marco Ramirez. She received a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Performance from Florida State University. Now living in New York City, she continues to perform (locally, her recent acting work includes the 2017 Main Street Players production of Bad Jews, Zoetic 2018 Fun house, and GableStage 2019 Indecent), while his concurrent writing career soars.

His game, The 6th, or, Les Patriotes, a grotesque adaptation of Henry VI, is a finalist in the Shakespeare’s New Contemporaries competition at Virginia’s American Shakespeare Center, and his play, Adaptive radiation, will be presented next month at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York. In addition to having written ten full-length pieces, she is working on a novel with an intriguing title, Trains to hell go faster.

Benitez, however, knows that performing a play about Cuba in his hometown carries a special weight.

“It’s really special to have a play performed in Miami,” she says. “It raises the stakes. It’s a very visceral subject in this city.”

Yankeeland follows the experiences – adventures and misadventures – of a Cuban-American family from Miami on a busy trip to Cuba.

Click to enlarge

In craftsmanship Yankeeland, Hannah Benitez drew on her own experience and observations.

Photo by Michael Eady

Father Carlos (James Puig) wants his Miami-born children Daniel / Danny (Gabriell Salgado) and Michelle / Michi (Alicia Cruz) to better understand the place that holds so many memories and shaped his life in exile. Danny and Michi, young adults who are largely a product of their hometown, appear to be gringos out of the water as they meet a series of women (all played by Stephanie Vazquez) and the sometimes infuriating realities of life in Cuba around 2017. Percussionist Yarelis Gandul Cabrera brings her own artistic contribution to the piece.

In craftsmanship YankeelandBenitez drew from his own experience and from “other members of my family and friends who had taken birthright trips to Cuba”. Her journey touched her in various ways.

“It’s connected a lot of intergenerational behaviors for me. I’m like, ‘Oh, that’s why I act like that when I drop a drink,'” she observes. “Cuba changed my relationship with Miami. It clarified in the first 15 minutes why Miami is like this, why there is a bustle mentality – it’s the residue of survival. The sounds were familiar too. world looks like my grandparents. “

Puig, who made his Zoetic debut as Carlos, came to Miami from Cuba as a child. He never came back – “this is my home,” he says – and after graduating from Barry University (then Barry College) and the University of Miami, he built a formidable theater career in New York (both on Broadway and Off-Broadway) and in major regional theaters, although rarely playing Latino roles.

He auditioned for Yankeeland before the COVID-19 pandemic hit and knew instantly he wanted to be part of the world’s first production.

“I fell in love with Hannah’s play from the two little scenes I was given to prepare for the audition,” Puig said. “And auditioning for Stuart was so wonderfully unique that I vividly remember wishing and praying with tremendous intensity that God would let me work with Stuart on this piece.

“That was over two years ago, and this hopeful joy of working with him on Hannah’s remarkable piece has sustained me through the lonely isolation of COVID times.”

Puig calls Benitez “a major talent” and finds common ground with Carlos in the character’s love for family. Both the actor and the worker character he plays are drawn to the world of the arts, although the paths they choose are different.

“He was following her head, while I was following my heart,” Puig says.

Click to enlarge Alicia Cruz, James Puig, Gabriell Salgado and Stephanie Vazquez roam Cuba in Zoetic Stage's GringoLandia.  - PHOTO BY TONY TUR

Alicia Cruz, James Puig, Gabriell Salgado and Stephanie Vazquez travel Cuba in Zoetic Stage’s Yankeeland.

Photo by Tony Tur

Cruz, who graduated from Florida International University in 2019, can relate to the piece as well. Her father came to the United States in the 1960s as part of the Pedro Pan program. He returned to Cuba for a visit in the 1980s, and Cruz says the experience was bittersweet.

“Some smells and sights were the same, but the energy had changed. There was silence when he got on the bus. He saw a lot of his family members who missed and loved him, and d ‘others who didn’t want to talk to him, “she said. “There was a lot of pain. It brought back a flood of memories.”

Of her character Michi, she says: “By making the trip as a child of immigrants, you understand that this place is part of your cultural identity, but you only had access to a representation of it. . It’s shocking to go to Cuba and realize your cultural armor. She starts to think, “I’m Cuban. It’s part of me.” Then she painfully realizes that she is a gringa In Miami. “

Salgado recently made his professional debut as a creature in Zoetic’s Frankenstein. He has since regained the weight he lost to help him create a dazzling and physically complex performance that has earned him rave reviews. His character in Yankeeland, Danny, is a whole different role. But Salgado says that without the New World School of the Arts, he could have been a guy like Danny.

“Oh, Danny, it’s me if I never became an artist,” says the Miami-raised actor, a 2019 New World graduate. “I was that brother. I had that energy, that complacency, that lack of ambition. If I had never found my passion, I would also be lost and immature. “

Just before the COVID-19 hit, Salgado traveled with Meltzer, his artistic mentor, friend and former teacher, to Cuba to explore the country and capture photos and videos that will be used in Yankeeland. As with Benitez, Salgado found the journey transformative.

“My perception of this place was completely wrong. Some of the things my parents and grandparents told me just weren’t true, but they stem from a trauma when you have to leave,” he says. . “I know what it means to say I’m Cuban American, the weight of that. It’s a beautiful place and so sad. It’s a weird dichotomy.”

In a playwright’s note at the start of his screenplay, Benitez writes: “In many ways, Cuba is the antagonist of this story. Not because Cuba, nor the Cuban people, are the enemy, but because the country’s systems are what, technically, … provide our characters, including those of Cuban origin, with their obstacles. Maybe if we go into history with this in mind, we (I’m looking at you, citizens of the “developed world”) can fully exercise our empathy, our political and global muscles. The saying goes that if you visit Cuba and have a ‘good time’ … you don’t see the real Cuba. “

In Cuba, Meltzer says, he and Salgado spoke with people from across the island to collect research and images. He, too, felt the trip had opened his eyes and often found himself talking with Cubans about their families in Miami.

“There is no political tendency in the play. The antagonist of the play is Cuba itself,” says Meltzer. “Much of our community will know these people. “

– Christine Dolen, ArtburstMiami.com

GringoLandia: a Cuban journey. Friday January 14 to Sunday January 30 at the Carnival Studio Theater at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami; 305-949-6722; arshtcenter.org. Tickets cost $ 55 and $ 60.

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