The new Team Sunshine play called “¡Bienvenidos Blancos!” – in English, “Welcome, White People!” — starts off as loopy fun with an American couple visiting Cuba; switches to mystical storytelling that involves the Cuban revolution and a woman who flees to Miami; then ends with a deeply felt and poignant declaration about identity from the show’s Cuban-American director Alex Torra.
Torra is the creative force behind “¡Bienvenidos Blancos!” which, like most of Team Sunshine Performance Corporation’s work, is devised by the production’s cast and creative team. He’s also the group’s resident director, staging all the full-length work from Team Sunshine, which has attracted a loyal following with shows like “The Sincerity Project” and a take on “Henry IV” with an army played by 100 West Philadelphians in Clark Park.
That was an exceptional display of theater that thrived with community involvement.
“¡Bienvenidos Blancos!” is a singular display of community exploration – Cubans, Americans, and the Cuban Americans who identify with both cultures; black people, white people, and a mixed race that is at once both and neither; and finally, a new generation of Americans with roots in Cuba but no memory of the revolution that overturned life on the island.
That’s a lot to ask for a show of about 90 minutes – and one that moves forward with jarring differences in tone. It becomes a coherent piece when Miami-born Torra appears suddenly on stage at the end to deliver his take on the way the particulars of Cuban history, and his own family’s part in it, affect him. He does so in Spanish, with supertitles above him. At one point during opening night Friday on the FringeArts stage, Torra spoke of an aunt who figures large in his family story and recently passed away. He was moved nearly to tears. So was I and, I suspect, others in the full house.
This was an unanticipated trajectory for a play that begins with an American couple (Benjamin Camp and Jenna Horton) seeking guidance in what may be a Havana tourist office. They know what they’re looking for, including “some old-time socialism, do you have any of that?” Answers the worker (Idalmis Garcia Rodriguez, a New York-based Cuban actress) who’s taken them under her bureaucratic wing: “Heeeeeere we have EV-rything!” That includes a Spanish lesson that could explode the couple’s marriage, as they repeat sentences translated in the supertitles as something other than what they might have expected. (The show’s titles, sometimes in both English and Spanish and intentionally divergent, are done by Paloma Irizarry.)
The other characters in the office are another tourism bureaucrat (Lori Felipe Barkin) and a janitor (the Cuban theater artist Jorge Enrique Caballero Elizarde) who’s pressed into many different services. The show then turns into narratives – they’re called chapters here – that reflect life in Cuba at different points and bluntly involve the Castro dictatorship.
As the five actors tell them, they sometimes toe the party line with a wink: Cubans, one of them insists, are being watched always and everywhere … making them feel safe and peaceful in their lives.
“¡Bienvenidos Blancos!” isn’t always clear about the ways Cubans understand themselves through their culture. But without a doubt, it makes the point that their exploitation, involving Spain, the United States and then, an unflagging Communism, continues to shape them and their American kin.
Come early to “¡Bienvenidos Blancos!” because the ensemble Timbalona performs Afro-Cuban rumba, a percussive style of music and dance, as the opening act for each performance. “¡Bienvenidos Blancos!” runs through April 28 at FringeArts, at Race Street and Columbus Boulevard.