A popular Spanish-language theater near Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood has been entertaining its audiences for months with a parody that would spur outrage in many other cities. One of the leading actors in the play performs in blackface.
The response from most of this audience: applause and laughter.
“It has been a hit and no one has complained ... on the contrary, she is one of the favorites," said Marisol Correa, who oversees the venue where the play is showing. “The character is typical of the Cuban theater, the negrito cubano, but the person is never discriminated.”
3 Viudas en un Crucero (three widows on a cruise), playing at the Teatro Trail at 3715 SW Eighth St., features light-skinned Cuban actress Marta Velasco smeared with dark makeup, exaggerated red lips, thick, drawn-in eyebrows and an afro wig. A trailer of the play posted on Youtube shows Velasco pounding her chest, with her legs wide open while saying "Bailar, tomar y gozar como tres gorilas" (to dance, drink and have fun like three gorillas).
The show is about three older women who live in a condominium in Hialeah and save up money to go on a cruise. The plot revolves around their plans to go on the cruise and their anecdotes upon their return.
Elsewhere in the United States such a presentation might spark outcries of racism. In Miami, the performance has sold out every weekend and the audience "loves it," Correa said.
The play, characterized as a comedy, also got a favorable review, published in el Nuevo Herald. The only mention of the character in blackface says: The "female version of the classic negrito cubano of the Cuban vernacular is interpreted masterfully by Marta Velasco.”
Velasco and the play’s director, Pedro Roman, also shrugged at the notion that the character might be offensive. They said the characters of a black, a mulatto and a gallego (a Galician immigrant) are part of the Cuban tradition and that their intention was not to hurt anyone.
Velasco said she has played similar characters for years in Miami and there has never been an issue.
“Now people protest for everything. I believe people should start worrying about more important things. There is nothing discriminatory about it. It was just created to make people laugh and have a good time,” Velasco said of her character, whom she describes as "genuine, funny, vivacious and the loudest one."
Blackface, defined as a form of theater makeup used by non-black actors to represent a caricature of a black person in minstrel shows that became popular in the 1830s, has long been considered offensive and racist across the United States. The theater was a place where white actors in blackface mocked African Americans and made light of slavery and racism. That kind of performance helped perpetuate stereotypes about black people and excluded blacks from performing arts for more than a century.
The blackface style of performance ended in the U.S. in the 1960s with the rise of the Civil Rights movement.
But in Latin America, the so-called bufos characters of vernacular theater have prevailed in plays and television. Even as they portray a caricature of black Latin Americans, it isn’t rare for local TV stations in Miami to show comedians in blackface.
For those involved in the Teatro Trail play, characters like the one Velasco is interpreting are "normal" and a testament to actors' “excellent skills" and "adaptability," Correa and Velasco said.
“To say that a light-skinned actress painting herself [black] is discriminatory is like saying that an actor cannot play the Cat from [Cat in the Hat] because he is not a cat. Or that an actor cannot interpret a Chinese person because he was born in the United States,” said Correa. “This character was conceived as a black [Cuban] woman who lives in a condo in Hialeah and gets along with her two neighbors.”
Asked why they couldn’t simply hire a black actress to play the part, Correa said that Velasco was chosen because she played a similar character before and is “such an excellent actress.”
Velasco said that she doesn’t know any black Hispanic actresses in the Spanish Miami theater world. Roman, the play's director, said that no dark-skinned actresses showed up to the casting call.
But for Sarah Prieto, 53, a local social science teacher who recently went to see the play, it wasn’t clear why the actress had to be in blackface at all.
“I was shocked. I didn’t understand why she needed to be black. What’s the point?” said Prieto, a Cuban American who was born and raised in Miami.
More shocking, Prieto said, was the fact that the people she went to see the play with said she was exaggerating when she raised her concerns.
A few days later, she showed promotional videos of the play to her colleagues — both Cuban-American history teachers — and their reactions were much different.
“Like me, they were outraged. They can’t believe this is going on here,” Prieto said.
Roman, the director, said he understands why the character can be offensive, and “justifiably” so, in American culture. However, he said, that approach doesn’t apply to Cuban culture, where vernacular theater has continued to be a tradition.
Yet, he conceded, if people are offended, “I accept the criticism, just know that [the character] was not created to be offensive in any way,” he said. "As I said before, most of my very good friends are black. I don't see [skin] color.”
3 Viudas en un Crucero is showing Saturdays and Sundays, according to Teatro Trail’s website.