Bernard Schütze

FTA 2019 | Stefan Kaegi: Granma. Trombones from Havana

Granma. Trombones from Havana
Stefan Kaegi
Rimini Protokoll + Théâtre Maxim Gorki
Zurich + Berlin
Festival TransAmériques
Monument-National, Salle Ludger-Duvernay
May 28 to 30, 2019

Small Threads Large Tapestry

In Granma, history, of the grand forward-marching and/or circle-turning variety, and narrative threads of the everyday and mundane sort overlap, intertwine and interweave to form a tapestry centred on the heritage of the Cuban revolution. At once intimate and deeply embedded in the broader historical events, this engaging performance invites the audience to bear witness to a retelling of recent Cuban history as viewed through the eyes of four grandchildren, who recount the life trajectories of their respective grandparents, while they at the same time try to asses their present situation in relation to this rich but also contradictory utopian legacy. At the centre of this documentary theatre is a polyphonic history lesson during which the four protagonists at times take on the role of their grandparents and at others dialogue directly or indirectly with them as they agree or diverge on various issues related to the revolution and its echoes. Dramatically the storyline is fuelled by a dual dynamic, the first is intergenerational and consists of the protagonist’s respective dialogues with their forbears, the other is generated by the relationship between these intimate and embodied stories and the historical events in which they unfold. The mirror-like dialogic structure that runs through the performance is introduced from the start when a first protagonist, Milagro, a young black woman and recent history graduate enters to speak of herself and her grandmother Nidia, a seamstress whom she evidently greatly admires.

As the grandmother’s image appears on a video, Milagro puts on a white dress—just like the one her grandmother is wearing in the video—and proceeds to sit at an old Singer sewing table to embroider the year 1956 on a long white banner, a gesture that effectively combines sewing with history telling. This banner will subsequently be slipped forward by each of the players to cinematographically announce the play’s year-by-year progression: 1957, 1958, 1959 until the present. In the process, Milagro confesses that though she does not know how to sew “the act of sewing appears to be a lot like writing history.” Much of what is to follow is already contained in this opening sequences: the mirror-like dialogue, the partial enacting of that role while maintaining one’s own position, the interspersing of video, photographic textual and prop material to gather the various subjective tales of individual stories into a multi-voiced historical narrative.

The other three protagonists introduce different subjective perspectives to enrich this situated history lesson and multiply the angles from which to tell it. The soft spoken Daniel, a young animation filmmaker who relates his tales in Spanish and sometimes addresses the audience directly in English, recounts the story of his grandfather Faustino, who played a prominent role in the Cuban revolution as the organizer behind the legendary journey of the eponymous Granma, a yacht on which 82 rebels, including Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, crossed over from Mexico to land in Cuba and begin the guerrilla war that culminated with the 1959 toppling of Batista. Using projected photographs and video, as well as printed documents, Daniel enthusiastically, and in a somewhat amused tone, recounts how his grandfather then became part of the new government and headed the “Ministry responsible for the recovery of misappropriated goods.” For his part, Christian, a boisterous yet self-doubting computer engineering graduate, engages in various video-mediated dialogues with his self-assured and often humorous grandfather Rufino, an armed forces officer who trained in the Soviet Union and who remains a staunch defender of socialism. In addition, he is he also a baseball enthusiast, a passion that he has passed on to his grandson; as the audience soon finds out for itself in several baseball-inspired fourth wall-breaking addresses. The fourth player, Diana, a professional musician, evokes the life and times of her grandfather Nicolás, also a musician and a member of the touring band Las Maravilas.

In addition to playing her role as one of the storytellers, Diana also introduces a crucial dramatic device to bring the four storylines together in a collective dimension, drawing inspiration from the micro-brigade, a Cuban practice in which non-professionals are guided by a trained foreperson to collectively build their homes. As part of her initial onstage appearance, Diana states how she taught the other three, all non-musicians, to play the trombone. Coming together as a trombone ensemble, the four punctuate momentous events that impacted Cuba over the last sixty years. As the years pass and personal events are illustrated through films, photographs and various props, the audience grows more familiar with the onstage characters and their alter ego grandparents. However, with this growing historical complexity and accumulation of references, the grand documentary-driven history lesson at times tends to loom larger than the personal testimonies and life stories that are at the heart of the onstage unfoldings. This is a somewhat problematic aspect, especially two-thirds or so into the play as the chronological forward march and parade of images begins to overshadow the presence of the micro-brigade storytellers and undermine their affective resonance. Fortunately, the tension between the subjectively lived histories and grand historical contours is brought back to the fore through the protagonists’ subjective and heartfelt engagement with the rich yet often contradictory legacy of Cuban socialism that their grandparents had a role in shaping. In following these four young Cubans on their filial and personal journey in this intimately shared history lesson, Granma looks back on the personal and collective legacy of the revolution’s utopian aspirations in its historical accomplishments and conflicting developments as these youngsters variously ponder what to retain of it and what not. Overall this is a truly inspired, resonant and instructive performance that is carried by an embodied intergenerational storytelling which provides a charming review of the past, lucid assessment of a present and a future to be constructed along a common road of singular endeavours.

In Spanish with English and French surtitles
Produced by Rimini Protokoll + Maxim Gorki Theater
Conceived and directed by Stefan Kaegi
Performed by Milagro Alvarez Leliebre, Daniel Cruces-Pérez, Diana Osumy Sainz, Christian Paneque Moreda
Dramaturgy: Aljoscha Begrich, Yohayna Hernández
Set Design: Aljoscha Begrich.
Video: Mikko Gaestel.
Music: Ari Benjamin-Meyers.
Research: Residencia Documenta Sur – Laboratorio Escénico de Experimentación Social (Havana).
Coproduction: Festival TransAmériques + Emilia Romagna Teatro Fondazione (Modena) + Kaserne Basel + Onassis Cultural Centre (Athens) + Théâtre Vidy-Lausanne + LuganoInscena-LAC+ Zürcher Theaterspektakel (Zurich).
With the support of German Federal Cultural Foundation + Pro Helvetia, Fondation suisse pour la culture + Swiss Arts Council + Senate Department for Culture and Europe + Goethe-Institut Havana.
Presented in association with Carrefour international de théâtre (Quebec City) + Monument-National with the support of Pro Helvetia, Fondation suisse pour la culture + Goethe-Institut Montreal + Federal Minister for Foreign Affairs of Germany.
Translated by Neil Kroetsch

Stefan Kaegi, Granma. Trombones from Havana. Photo © Stefan Kaegi.
Stefan Kaegi, Granma. Trombones from Havana. Photo © Ute Langkafel (MAIFOTO).
Stefan Kaegi, Granma. Trombones from Havana. Photo © Bill Bachmann (Alamy Stock Photo).
Stefan Kaegi, Granma. Trombones from Havana. Photo © Doro Tuch.
Stefan Kaegi, Granma. Trombones from Havana. Photo © Doro Tuch.
Stefan Kaegi, Granma. Trombones from Havana. Photo © Doro Tuch.
Stefan Kaegi, Granma. Trombones from Havana. Photo © Doro Tuch.
Stefan Kaegi, Granma. Trombones from Havana. Photo © Doro Tuch.
Stefan Kaegi, Granma. Trombones from Havana. Photo © Doro Tuch.
Stefan Kaegi, Granma. Trombones from Havana. Photo © Doro Tuch.