International theater collaboration examines Cuban, American perspectives

A new play "¡Bienvenidos Blancos!, or Welcome White People!" tracks a descendant of the Cuban exodus as he re-assesses his feelings for the island nation.

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Director Alex Torra works with performers with Team Sunshine Performance Corporation on

Director Alex Torra works with performers with Team Sunshine Performance Corporation on "¡Bienvenidoes Blancos! or Welcome White People!" (Peter Crimmins/WHYY)

A Philadelphia theater company is premiering a new work made in collaboration with theater artists in Cuba. “¡Bienvenidos Blancos! or Welcome White People!” by Team Sunshine Performance Corporation concerns the  sometimes conflicted relationship Cuban-Americans have with Cuba — and vice versa.

The parents of longtime Philadelphia theater artist Alex Torra fled Cuba when when Fidel Castro came to power six decades ago. They never returned.

“They hoped Castro would fall and they would return to Cuba,” said Torra, who was born and raised in Miami. “They decided to never go back … if you go back, if you spent money in Cuba, you are supporting the government. For a long time, my belief and my parents’ belief is that we shouldn’t go.”

Torra never visited Cuba until a few years ago when he began to reassess the feelings he inherited from his parents for the country of his heritage.

“It’s not just about holding onto the perspective, it’s about honoring it and creating a new one,” said the co-founder of Team Sunshine Performance Corporation. “I have a lot of admiration and respect and love for my family and my community. My opinions and perspective are now different.

“How do I be OK with that, as my parents and community’s perspective stays the same?”

Those complicated feelings are at the heart of “¡Bienvenidos Blancos! or Welcome White People!”

Torra uses a theater method; the performance ensemble, largely without a script, develops the material over a long period. He sought out theater artists from Cuba, so the material could be directly shaped by Cubans who never left.

He found Cheryl Zaldivar, a film actress and TV personality based in Havana. They were referred to each other across a large network of distant, interconnected family members. Once they met, Zaldivar wanted to be part of it.

She’d never heard of this kind of theater project connecting the native Cuban experience with the experience of the generation who left.

“This generation has a point of view that is very old. It has a lot of resentment, and they can’t see beyond that,” said Zaldivar, who serves as assistant director. “Alex has a more pure global sight of what it is. That’s why I think it’s new.”

The title of the show is sarcastic, referring to the reservation many Cubans have over selling their culture to visiting Americans, even as they welcome tourism dollars.

“When I watch that happen, I feel angry about it. I feel strange about it,” said Torra. “Selling, entertaining, and hosting Americans and tourists is a necessary part of the Cuban economy. It’s fraught and complicated.”

¡Bienvenidos Blancos!” opens just a day after the historic transition of power in Cuba: For the first time in 60 years, the country will be led by someone who is not a Castro.

Torra said it won’t change the action or meaning of the play. Zaldivar concured, saying it really won’t change life in Cuba, either.

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