Groundbreaking play unearths memories of Cuban trauma

Daniel Romero as the central character in “10 Million”
Daniel Romero as the central character in “10 Million” Photo by Enrique de la Osa

When a closed country like Cuba begins to change and open up to the world, it can also open to its own traumatic history. That, at least, is what the wrenchingly powerful play "10 Million," which finished a too-short run of three performances at the On-Stage Black Box at Miami-Dade County Auditorium this past weekend, seems to show.

An examination of the redemptive possibilities of memory, and of writing itself, "10 Million," is Cuban playwright and director Carlos Celdrán's account of his life from the 60's to the 80's. The groundbreaking production by his group Argos Teatro ran for five months in Havana last year. Presented in Miami by the Copperbridge Foundation and FUNDarte, two Miami groups dedicated to Cuban culture, it shows painful political brutality and division playing out in a Cuban family. But it is also dreamlike, poetic, emotionally probing, agonizingly honest. After Saturday night's performance, which received a long standing ovation, some in the audience were in tears.

"10 Million" is starkly intimate. There are just four characters: Him (Daniel Romero), Celdrán’s alter ego; his Mother (Maridelmis Marín), a fanatic warrior of the Revolution who is separated from his Father (Caleb Casas), a political outcast who leaves on the Mariel boatlift; and a Narrator (Waldo Franco), who sometimes stands in for the authoritarian state. The set (also designed by Celdrán) is a three-tiered grey platform with a grey chalkboard wall - a literal blank slate - on which Franco writes the names of different segments: Dream, Encounters, Politics, and so on. The only prop is a blue duffel bag which Romero lugs around, a metaphor for the author's psychological baggage.

Celdrán, 53, began the play (the title refers to the disastrous 1970 campaign to harvest ten million tons of sugar) in 2001 as a personal diary, and it is packed with the vivid, disjointed imagery of memory - the sweet humidity of a summer night at the father's rural home, a stained mattress in a brutal reformatory, soot-stained faces looming in a hellish nighttime harvest.

"Dreaming comes first," says Romero in the opening. "I sleep wondering what would happen if I woke up."

The play is a series of monologues and narratives, with the characters speaking almost exclusively to us, rather than each other. It unfolds with Romero's descriptions of horrific "therapy" and schools for those perceived to be at risk of being gay: little boys forced to beat each other to show their toughness; a country camp where no one knows his name and baths are a jet of icy water; another where he awakens to the power of books and a profound connection with another boy. He describes his isolated, affectionate, helpless father; and his relentless mother, who sacrifices him to brutal treatment to show her dedication, demands that he inform on his father during summer visits.

Casas and Marín explain themselves in their own monologues. As the Father, Casas is tortured, yearning, enormously moving. But some of the most compelling sequences are where Marín, who could have been a purely repulsive character, talks of how unhappy and restricted she felt in her marriage, the exhilaration of political passion and being a leader. The actors are superb, illuminating dense monologues with emotional life and psychological detail. Romero balances a early sense of wide-eyed innocence with an unflinching, and ultimately devastating, self-examination.

The play's crucible comes in 1980, as the Father joins those storming the Peruvian Embassy and demanding to leave Cuba, even as Romero joins the crowds demonstrating against them, suspended in a surreal internal division between loving his father and swept into hateful mass frenzy. There's an almost unbearably painful sequence as Romero relates his half-sister’s description of how their father was viciously beaten while he waited to leave. As Romero and his grandmother leave her, their stunned silence seems a metaphor for how Cuba has buried its pain.

"These are ghosts of ideas," Marín says late in the play, as we learn that she, too, eventually left Cuba. "How can you know what we were? Justice doesn't exist. You can only keep on struggling."

"I did what I could," says Casas, weeping with guilt at the bitter choice to leave, at the pain of exile. "What does it matter to write now?"

A great deal. "In Cuba they try to forget and move forward - it happened, let's move on," Celdrán said Saturday. "But we have to talk about it."

In "10 Million," they do.

If you go

What: “10 Million”

When: 5 p.m. Sunday

Where: On-Stage Black Box at Miami-Dade County Auditorium, 2901 W. Flagler St., Miami

Info: $17 to $27 at ticketmaster.com