“Always, when I’m about to leave at the airport, I have a panic attack that they’re not going to let me leave,” says Machado, 66, who first went back to Cuba in 1999 and has since returned numerous times. “What I always take back from Cuba is that I’m still incredibly connected, and there’s no way I can ever run away from it.”
That connection is reflected in Machado’s work, as most of his 50-plus plays — including “Celia and Fidel,” which will have its world premiere at Arena Stage later this month — focus on Cuba in some form. That differentiates him from Nilo Cruz, his fellow Cuban-born playwright, whose “Exquisite Agony” is now in production at GALA Hispanic Theatre. Although Cruz has gravitated toward Cuba, his work is more eclectic in subject matter. But as an immigrant who came to the United States on a Freedom Flight in 1970, when he was 10, Cruz feels his Cuban American identity remains an inherent aspect of his creativity.
“[Writers] live a little bit more on the periphery because we are observers, and we must observe in order to capture human comportment onstage,” says Cruz, 59, who in 2003 became the first Latin playwright to win the Pulitzer Prize for “Anna in the Tropics.” “We are outsiders, and from the moment I came to this country I was an exile. When I discovered myself as a writer, it was very easy for me.”
While Cruz’s work often is lyrical and allegorical, Machado has a more grounded approached to storytelling. But they each cite Cuban American playwright María Irene Fornés as a mentor. They also have each followed her lead by teaching: Machado at New York University, Columbia University and Sarah Lawrence College; and Cruz at Yale and Brown universities and the University of Iowa.
With plays by both writers in production at Washington theaters this month, Machado calls the synergy “an opportunity for the D.C. audience to see two voices that started in Cuba, and how they developed into very different styles and ways of thinking.”
Reflecting on his childhood in Cuba, Cruz recalls a “dual reality” in which his family publicly supported Communism, while privately holding anti-revolutionary beliefs. When Cruz was very young, his father served a prison sentence for attempting to flee the country. Cruz and his parents eventually gained approval to leave for the United States, but they were forced to leave his two older sisters behind because they were married to men bound to military service.
Machado, for his part, grew up in the coastal town of Cojímar, the well-off grandson of a businessman with a successful bus company. When Machado was 7, he went with his family to a local bar to meet revolutionaries Che Guevara, Camilo Cienfuegos and Castro. “At that point,” he recalls, “I thought [Castro] was Jesus Christ.”
A year later, Machado’s father told him and his 5-year-old brother that they were flying to Miami for the weekend. In reality, they were among the 14,000 children brought to the United States as part of an American program designed to shield children from Communist indoctrination, about which his parents had grown increasingly concerned.
Though Castro has loomed over Machado’s life and work, the former Cuban president has never appeared as a character in one of his plays. That will change when Robert M. Jimenez portrays Castro in “Celia and Fidel,” a 1980s-set drama exploring the relationship between the revolutionary and his trusted confidant Celia Sánchez (Marian Licha).
“There’s no middle ground in how people see him, and I wanted to write about the middle ground,” Machado says of the play, which will be directed by Arena Stage artistic director Molly Smith. “I wanted to explore the fact that Fidel was a genius, that he did what he did because he had to, and that he became everything he once hated: a totalitarian.”
The plot of Cruz’s “Exquisite Agony,” on the other hand, has no direct connection to Cuba. The play follows a grieving opera star (Luz Nicolás) as she forges a complicated bond with a young man (Joel Hernández Lara) who has received her late husband’s heart, via transplant. “Exquisite Agony” is, however, written in Cruz’s native Spanish, with the GALA production presented alongside English surtitles.
“Even when I was writing in English, I was always trying to capture the Spanish rhythms in the writing,” says Cruz, who also directed this production. “I think it’s enriching just to live in two languages, and to see what each language offers the other.”
Although Machado’s “Celia and Fidel” follows a decidedly more political path than “Exquisite Agony,” Cruz sees the resonance of highlighting two Cuban Americans’ voices on D.C. stages at a time when immigration and the global refugee crisis endure as divisive political issues.
“I always feel that, when I see a work of art from a particular country, what is painted in the news as being extreme and drastic is less so,” Cruz says. “What we get in the news is just the politics of those who are in power, but we don’t get to see the intimate stories of the people who are sometimes the victims of that power.
“I think this is why I do theater,” he continues. “Because we see the other angle, and we see real human beings. Even though they might be fictional, they come from reality.”
GALA Hispanic Theatre, 3333 14th St. NW. 202-234-7174. en.galatheatre.org.
Dates: Through March 1.
Celia and Fidel
Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW. 202-488-3300. arenastage.org.
Dates: Feb. 28 to April 12.