Playwright Eduardo Machado can’t get away from the theatre, no matter how he may try. He told me in a recent interview that he had fled the theatre some years ago to write for TV, only to be lured back by an offer from Arena Stage artistic director Molly Smith, who has been busy in recent years commissioning 25 “Power Plays” on political themes for her theatre (including Camp David and Intelligence).
Another thing Machado can’t seem to escape: his homeland of Cuba, which he and his family left when he was 9 years old. Though he has written plays on other subjects, his most well known works (including the ambitious Floating Island Plays) have revolved around Cuba and Cubans, whether living there or throughout the U.S. Raised in Los Angeles, Machado studied with Maria Irene Fornes in New York City and served as artistic director of INTAR Theatre there.
I spoke to Machado last month about Celia and Fidel, the new play he wrote on commission for Arena Stage, which begins performances there tonight in Washington, D.C. It focuses on a crucial pivot moment near the middle of Castro’s 52-year reign: In 1980, 10,000 Cuban citizens sought asylum at the Peruvian Embassy in Cuba, a standoff that ended when Castro opened the port of Mariel to all Cubans who wanted to leave the island country (some 125,000 jumped at the offer). Meanwhile President Carter had quietly sent an envoy to Havana to discuss finally lifting the punishing U.S. trade embargo—an opportunity for a diplomatic breakthrough that remained unseized (indeed, the embargo remains in place to this day). At Castro’s side in Machado’s play, both advising and upbraiding him, is his longtime comrade Celia Sánchez.
Celia and Fidel marks two departures for Machado: It’s his first play about his native country’s most iconic and notorious figure, whom he actually met and knew socially as a boy. It is also his first to approach an often-lazily-cited Latin American trope which he has assiduously avoided till now: magic realism.
ROB WEINERT-KENDT: Of all the times you could have picked to write about this subject, why this particular point in Castro’s regime?
EDUARDO MACHADO: Well, I was in L.A. writing television. I had decided never ever to write a play again. And I got an email from Molly Smith saying, “Lisa Loomer told me you want to write a play about Fidel.” I said, “Yes, but I’m not doing it by myself.” And she said, “How about me to direct?” And I went, “Okay.” Then she told me, “You can have the ’50s or the ’80s.” I said, “I want the ’80s.” The reason is because I knew Carter tried to end the embargo, and Fidel sent the marielitos. And though I’d never written about Fidel, I certainly had already written about Cuba in the ’50s, and would be not into doing that again. Also, without giving anything away about the play, I always wanted to write about what’s magic realism and what isn’t.
Right, that’s a canard that gets hung on a lot of Latinx writers if there’s anything nonlinear in their work: “Ah, magic realism.”
When I was very young, I never wrote like that. At South Coast Rep, I was told—many of us were told—by the artistic directors, “If you don’t write magical realism, we’re not gonna produce you.” And that got me very angry! I thought, well, I have a mind; I can be dialectical even though I’m Spanish. Then I wrote this play for them called A Burning Beach. I consider it perhaps the worst play I ever wrote. It was overly poetic language. The audience was getting really pissed off, and Robert Woodruff, who was directing a reading, said to me, as a joke, “Let’s say, when he cracks open this armoire, the blood starts pouring and it covers the entire stage and then the audience.” And I said, “Sure.” So I sent out the play, not knowing that the stage manager actually added that into the script, and I got two productions in two weeks: one at American Place Theater Off-Broadway, and one at LATC.
Because you added that bit?
Because I added that as a joke! At American Place, I managed to convince them not to do it—the stage just turned red. But at LATC it bled. And then I destroyed that—I took the play out of circulation, though I think I could have had 20 productions if I would have left in the blood.
You said earlier that you’d run away from the theatre. Why?
If you look at my CV, I actually get produced every year, but in my mind I don’t. The last time I really had a play done at regional theatres and stuff was The Cook in 2007. Regional theatres didn’t want me anymore. And TV seems to want me, so why do I want to pound my head against a wall that at this moment doesn’t want me? I’m not gonna keep writing plays. I mean, I love doing plays at Theater for the New City, and actually the production that they did at the Odyssey in L.A. of my Greek adaptation was wonderful. But I was in a moment where I was going: Maybe it’s over, so leave before somebody tells me to go. I mean, I’ve been writing plays for an awfully long time. I had written a play about Tennessee Williams that I really loved, and when my agents sent it out, they got comments like, “Why is he writing about Tennessee Williams?” That also pissed me off. I said, “Why don’t I get to write about Tennessee? I’ve been here for 50 years. I knew a lot of people that knew him.” But there are all these assumptions about you, and then all of a sudden TV wants you, and you’re going: Well, they want me to create these shows that they’ll never produce, but they gotta pay me all this money. But that lasted a year, and now I’m writing two musicals and this play.
Well, we’re glad to have you back. I was in L.A. when your Floating Islands plays went up at the Taper.
You wanna know something incredible? They did a reading of Floating Islands in L.A. in April, the Hero Theater Company, and a lot of the actresses who had originally played the young parts now played the older parts. And people went bananas. It was really interesting, after 30 years, to see an audience be shocked and see young actors be like in heaven to be in those plays. It was fascinating for me.
How did Fidel Castro figure into your life growing up as a Cuban American?
He loomed over my life, every day. Every day. He was the shadow figure, right? Then I started changing my mind, and he became my hero. Then I went to Cuba and realized what was going on there while he was still alive. I met a lot of people in Cuba that knew him. I knew him when I was 6, you know—I met him when I was 6, 7, and 8, because my family was big enough at that point to know him.
Approaching him as a subject was mind-boggling for me. I started watching a lot of documentaries about him. There was this documentary on Netflix called Cuba and the Cameraman. It was about a guy from New York who, one day in the ’60s—he had a camera but he wasn’t from any magazine or anything, and as Fidel was walking down after a press thing, this man asked him a question and Fidel answered it, and then Fidel let him film him until the year before he died. What I noticed was that when Fidel was being a regular person, he spoke like a Cuban, and when he gave speeches, he spoke in Castilian Spanish. And for some reason that allowed me to write the play. Don’t ask me why, but the minute I saw that I went: Oh, I know who you are.
Had you never heard him or seen him as an everyday Cuban before that?
Probably when I was 7, when I was hanging out with him. But no, I hadn’t ever seen it. Also his warmth toward the people who worked for him was so evident as this the guy followed him around; he wasn’t performing for the guy. That documentary allowed me to write the play. Before that I had Nixon in the play, I had Bebe Rebozo in the play—I had everybody in the play and the play wasn’t working. And all of a sudden, I knew what characters needed to be in the play. Celia became a big part of the play. In Cuba everybody knows about her, but not here.
You obviously had to invent a lot of dialogue for the play. Did you get a sense from your research that the people around him were free to talk back to him, as Celia does in the play—that he wasn’t surrounded by yes men?
No, you were allowed to challenge him, and then you were allowed to be punished by him—it was that kind of thing. I mean, I can’t talk about everything that’s going on between the United States and Cuba now. But on my trips back to Cuba, when Repertorio Español took Broken Eggs there, I met a lot of people who knew and worked for him.
Do you see him as a tragic figure?
No, I see him as someone whose ego got in his way.
So you said at one point he was a shadow figure to you, and at another point he was a hero. Is this play partly an argument with yourself over the different ways you’ve seen him over the years?
Yeah, I would say that. On the one hand, there’s the way he manipulated the situation, and on other hand there’s the way that the Cubans in Miami were so against him that they convinced the Republican Party to be against him forever.
In your play he does seem to be a bit of a conspiracy theorist—about plots on his life, about the Kennedys, about Bebe Rebozo being Nixon’s secret lover.
Well, you know, that came out in a book in 2011. But yes, Castro was a great spy and he was obsessed with conspiracy theories.
I’d always heard the argument that despite his protestations, he preferred to keep the U.S. embargo in place because it was a useful foil for him. Did he actually believe that?
I know he did.
Do you feel like this play has something to say about current debates over leadership, autocracy, and socialism?
Well, did you read the article in The New York Times today about what has happened to working-class Americans? It was basically a writer saying, if you go back to the town I grew up in, everyone’s dead because of opioids, car accidents. The minimum wage is still $7.50; with inflation it should be $22.50. So how can you not have people want to be socialist, you know? When the disparity is so huge? I see very clearly why socialism in theory is great. Unfortunately, socialism—most of the time it’s taken over by somebody who wants all the power. Fidel was not offering socialism to the Cuban people. He was offering them a constitution and getting rid of the Mob. And the United States wanted him to get rid of the Mob, because the Mob was making so much money in Cuba that they began to become more legitimate in the U.S., and the U.S. was really afraid of what was going on. So they were all for him, but then he changed his mind, and I think it had a lot to do with Eisenhower. I don’t know why Eisenhower treated him the way he did.
I mean, ultimately the Russians were there waiting for him, offering him everything. I think that’s why he nationalized everything so quickly. I think at the end, the United States and Cuba would always have been in trouble because he was a communist.
Because you were raised mostly in L.A., and were not part of the world of Cubans in Miami, do you feel like you’re between the two sides? You can see the problems with both Cuban communism and the American system?
I can see the problems with both of them, and I make both sides angry.