The Changing Face of Traditional Theatre in Post-Revolutionary Cuba

La Cruzada Teatral

Photo by Laurie Frederik Meer

Modern Cuba is home to an incongruous mixture of modern and traditional. Bustling, urban Havana is a remarkable contrast with the remote and isolated countryside, where many Cubans live and work.

Laurie Frederik Meer arrived in Cuba's eastern Guantanamo Province on the back of a Russian flatbed truck accompanied by twenty-four Cuban artists and theatre performers. The professor in UMD's School of Theatre, Dance, and Performance Studies conducted ethnographic field research for over two years, attached to a troupe of performing artists who trekked into the most isolated parts of Cuba's mountain terrain. These artists presented outdoor theatre that celebrated cubanía (Cuban-ness) and the beloved campesino (farmer), while at the same time questioning their traditional role in a modern Communist society.

As an anthropologist, [Dr. Laurie Frederik Meer] examines how and why particular cultures use theatre to define themselves and deal with social and ethical conflicts.

Dr. Frederik Meer’s research focuses on culture and politics through the lens of the performing arts. As an anthropologist, she examines how and why particular cultures use theatre to define themselves and deal with social and ethical conflicts. She explores the ways Cuban people and the state use theatre arts for both propaganda purposes as well as to raise subversive questions – a possibility unique to live theatre through gesture, facial expression, humor, metaphor, and poetic nuances. By funding arts groups that represent acceptable messages, the government creates a mouthpiece to engage the people, and artists are able to reach a broader audience (as long as they are critically discreet), develop new works, and optimize their artistic contribution.

Theatre performances attract mostly Cuban audiences, even in such urban areas as Havana. But now that performances of cubanía increasingly include afrocuban religious traditions (Santería), drumming and dance, it has also become an important source of tourism revenue, boosting Cuba's impoverished economy.

In her new book, Trumpets in the Mountains, this UMD professor provides a fascinating look at Cuba's shift in national identity and its impact on performing arts. This sort of longitudinal research provides a glimpse at how the visions of this struggling nation, only 90 miles from the US, are developed, manipulated and dramatized.