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Julio de la Nuez

Ground Down to Nothing but Still Fighting: A Review of Talco

Lillian Manzor and Austin Webbert | University of Miami

Talco: un drama de tocador. Written by Abel González Melo. Directed by Alberto Sarraín. La Má Teodora, ARCA Images, and Cuban Theater Digital Archive. Abanico Theater, Coconut Grove, Florida. 16 April 2010.

Talco: un drama de tocador (Talc: A Powder Room Drama) is the final play in Abel González Melo’s trilogy, Fugas de Invierno (Winter Scapes). One of Cuba’s most important contemporary playwrights, González Melo is known for a hybrid poetics in which he employs contemporary formal features, such as non-linear storytelling and flashbacks (à la Michel Azama, Bernard-Marie Koltès, and Juan Mayorga), interwoven with elements from the classical tradition in order to stage the ignoble realities of postmodern life. The trilogy addresses concerns that are dear to its author and his generation, namely: the complex and contradictory ways in which homosexuality, sex, and migration from the countryside to the capital become means of survival in a society that has lost all sense of value.

Talco interweaves the stories of four characters trying to make their living on the margins of Cuban society. Javi, El Ruso (the Russky; Ariel Teixidó), a drug dealer, and pimp, is the manager of El Mégano, a movie theater. Mashenka, La Dura (the Rough Lady; Juan David Ferrer), is an aging transvestite who works in the theater and also for Javi’s side business in drugs [videoclip 1]. Zuleidy, La Guanti (the Glove; Oneisis Valido), is an architect who migrated to Havana from Guantánamo and works as a prostitute in order to take care of her daughter. Álvaro, El Cherna (the Flamer; Norberto Correa), is a homosexual dying of throat cancer. As the paths of these four characters crisscross throughout the play, we discover that Zuleidy happens to be Mashenka’s daughter and that Alvaro needs cocaine to help him through his final days. In this desperate and precarious nocturnal setting, the characters struggle to survive, suffering and celebrating life while they obsessively pursue the illusions of ephemeral pleasures: sex, drugs, and money. The story follows their vicious power struggles, which are marked by extreme verbal and physical violence.

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Much of the action in Talco unfolds in the filthy and decrepit bathroom of El Mégano. The action descends into a dank underworld where the old convictions of grand historical progress have crumbled into a disenchanted present reality. The play stages the confrontation between the promised eternal spring of Cuba’s hombre nuevo (new man)—those old values that were once socially significant but never mentioned in the play—and the present-day reality of drugs, violence, and corruption. Something has gone terribly wrong, but we only see the end result. It is the numb winter of humanity for sale: our trafficked and trafficking bodies, condemned to a tropical winter.

 

The Spanish title, Talco, plays on a series of meanings. “Talco,” talcum powder, recalls the ubiquitous presence of cocaine dust, the various white powders used to cut-in false purity, as well as the Cuban condition of being “hecho talco pero dando guerra:” ground down to nothing, but still fighting. The play’s setting also reveals the subtitle’s dark irony: “tocador” is a term for “powder room,” which carries similar class associations in both Spanish and English. However, the characters live amidst filthy urinals without running water in a cinema with floors covered with grime and condoms.

 

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Guanti Cherna dies

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González Melo’s play script won the First Cuban-German Theater Prize in 2009, which is sponsored by the Goethe Institute, the International Theatre Institute, and Havana’s Casa Editorial Tablas-Alarcos. Talco had its world premiere in Miami, under the direction of the Cuban-born and Miami-based director Alberto Sarraín, one of the protagonists of Miami-Havana theatrical exchanges. Sarraín has put together a talented team to create a staging that uses the aesthetics of “dirty realism” to interrogate this insistence of human beings, struggling to survive (“dando guerra”). [video clip 2] With the excellent set-design of Havana-based Eduardo Arrocha, Sarraín created minimalist scenery: in the background stands a series of urinals, a toilet, and a stall with a dilapidated and filthy door. Occasionally the door encloses and cuts-off characters, emphasizing their solitude and imprisonment. Sarraín and Arrocha also place the audience in the position of voyeur—the audience encircles the stage on three sides, nearly enclosing it. The setting connects the cinematically represented reality of the characters to the lived reality of the audience, implicating the audience in the drama of the play, as well as in its crime. At a gut level, we feel a palpable violation and anguish, sharing the violence with our “family” of migrants, traffickers, and trafficked.

 

In Talco, the audience becomes part of the dysfunctional family portrayed. In a masterful directorial reversal, the marginalized pimp, prostitute, and transvestite, before living in the shadows and silence of the underground, now inherit the center-stage, while the privileged audience is exiled to the periphery.

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Throughout Talco, Juan David Ferrer admirably brings Mashenka to life on stage avoiding the stereotypical performance of transvestites. Especially in the moments where s/he does not speak, the movement of her arms, playing with her hair, a batting of her eye lashes, a sad and lost gaze when Javi leaves, all of her non-verbal gestures help convey a Mashenka that, in addition to being tough, as her nickname implies, is also vulnerable, loving, motherly, protective, and funny. Ferrer is able to communicate Mashenka’s complex psychology and rounds a character that is not as multifaceted in the play script. González Melo and Sarraín, along with the actors and the rest of the creative team, have opened a compelling space of theater well worth the pain and pleasure of the experience.

 


Lillian Manzor is Associate Professor of Modern Languages and Literatures and Director of the Cuban/Latino Theater Digital Archive at the University of Miami. She is widely published in the field of Latin American and Latino/a cultural studies and theater and performance studies. In addition to numerous scholarly articles, she co-edited the first book on Latina performance artists (Latinas on Stage, 2000). She also co-edited the first book on Cuban American theater in Spanish published in Havana (Teatro cubano actual: dramaturgia escrita en los Estados Unidos, 2005). She is currently finishing a book manuscript on Cuban theater in the US, Marginality Beyond Return: US-Cuban Performances and Politics. She has also directed the video-editing of over 100 filmed theater productions, in Cuba and the United States, both equity and on-equity. She is actively involved in developing US-Cuba cultural dialogues through theater and performance.

Austin Webbert is a Summa Cum Laude graduate of the University of Miami’s undergraduate program in Latin American Studies.


References
González Melo, Abel. 2011. Talco: un drama de tocador. Havana: Ediciones Alarcos.

González Melo, Abel. 2011. Talc: A Powder Room Drama. Trans. Yael Prizant. Unpublished translation.