What does history feel like? How can it be staged? In a dynamic series of episodes, the cast of Antigonón, un contingente épico provokes questions about what constitutes heroism and how heroes are produced. Through performance, Teatro El Público’s ensemble of performers—the epic contingent—peels away the comfort of narrative. The use of plot that makes a classic drama or an island’s history legible as a unified collection of stories is made strange: how have stories of its struggle for independence created the idea of Cuba? What the theater company reveals, through energetic movement phrases and rich characterization, are those tensions that characterize the shifting horizon that links the patria (“homeland”) to the people who produce and imagine it. The dynamism of the performers and the pointed and purposeful lack of structure in Antigonón place the audience in a boat of sorts, continually unsettled, almost undulating, in time with the actions on stage. The island is always in sight and out of reach.
In Sophocles’s Antigone, the title character defies the king’s orders and tries to bury her brother, who is denied burial rites for leading the wrong side of a civil war. She is caught and is herself sentenced to be buried alive. Before the king can announce his change of heart, however, at this order, Antigone hangs herself, an action that leads to many more tragic deaths. Rather than a “take” on the ancient Greek play, though, Teatro El Público moves through Antigone’s story as an arrangement of dramatic possibilities that the performers pass their bodies through. In an interview in the magazine On Cuba playwright Rogelio Orizondo describes the initial stages of developing the performance with director Carlos Díaz and actors Deisy Forcade and Giselda Calero:
Carlos took the two actresses to a sandy hill, destined for the construction of the theater, and asked them to bury a few pieces of polyfoam there. When they did it, he told them they had already performed Antigone, that they had buried her brother and that they must return to the stage with their hands full of sand and they made a tour of the stage in such state…
Then he commanded us to read ¨Sueños con claustros de marmol¨ and ¨El padre Suizo,” two poems by Jose Marti. We would make a reading of the Greek myth from there.
In the interview, Orizondo goes on to discuss how starting from Martí’s poems led him to ask, “Who have been our Antigone[s]?” As his father battled cancer, Orizondo “took refuge” in Sylvia Plath’s poetry, orienting his investigation and writing through his personal experience with death at the time. Finding a study guide in an early 1960s teacher training manual (his grandmother and an aunt had been school teachers) on Martí’s 1869 “Abdala” (a patriotic drama about a fictional country featured in his self-published newspaper, La Patria Libre), the ensemble attempted to improvise answers to questions in the study guide. Unsatisfied with these improvisations, though, Orizondo continued to research, a process that led him to the work of Eusebio Leal, known as the “Historian of Havana.” It was in Leal’s work that Orizondo came across the story of the deaths of General Antonio Maceo and Francisco “Panchito” Gómez Toro.
Right there I discovered our Antigone: that boy who was less than 30 years, who stays with the corpse of his general and who commits suicide for his body not be profaned.
It was very nice to find that Cuba had its own Antigone in Panchito Gómez Toro. That gave a turn to the process by landing it into the country’s history.
Teatro El Público created Antigonón by passing through the story of Antigone. Before it could “land” in the history of Cuba, the creative team performed Antigone at a sandy hill with bits of polyfoam. Before they could start searching for a Cuban Antigone, they had to reckon with Martí’s poetry. As Orizondo’s process indicates, Antigonón was sculpted out of contingency—chaotic intersections where encounters with grief, family histories, experimentation, haunting poetry, and national legends allow the performance to exist in ways that could not be possible otherwise.
The initial idea for Antigonón came out of necessity—Deisy and Giselda needed to perform a Greek classic theater piece to graduate from Havana’s Universidad de las Artes (ISA). Martha Luisa Hernández, dramatic advisor and an assistant director on the 2013 production at the Trianón Theater in Havana, addresses, in the Cuban journal El Caimán Barbudo, the process of creating Antigonón, which took several years of research and collaborative digging into histories of Cuba. The result of this research process reflects encounters with how history moves at different speeds (time moves differently during peace, war, revolution, etc.) and goes in different directions through time (ways that we invent the past as we recover it). The writing and rehearsal of the show became a kind of game:
Antigonón … is a poetic machinery that ritualizes the encounter with bodies, with History, with a heroicity that is articulated as a game. In the same way that it refuses to narrate from the most conventional dramatic fiction, it prefers, from fragmentation, to expose the sacrifices of young people, creators and all Cubans.
The performance opens with two pairs of nude dancers moving in silence. The bodies slip over and off one another like water as they come into and out of the dim light. The opening speeches that follow are readings of poems penned by Cuban national hero, José Martí (1853–1895). “El padre suizo” (“The Swiss Father”) and “Verso XLV: Sueño con claustros de mármol” (“Verse XLV: I dream of cloisters of marble”) are poems of a “long and epic resonance” that, as Cuban critic Carlos Álvarez describes, the performance meticulously dissects “as if they had torn the nineteenth-century clothes and in the face of sacrilege, there is no choice but to dress the saint [Martí] with what we have at hand: a lycra, a thong, a rapper’s clothes, a school uniform.” Martí’s words are forced to exist in relation to the performers—they are removed from their national place of reverence and pass through characters who push those words to different limits. At the very instant that they recite Martí, they reinvent him.
Álvarez discusses the fragmentary action of the performance as a series of refusals that build to a heightened engagement with the idea of the patria. The persistent use of monologue and stylized vocal tones and rhythms, for example, prevent the characters from developing relationships with each other outside of the immediate moments of performance. The performers deny the audience any opportunity to place them as known subjects; on stage, they perform, instead, as an insurgent brigade that sweeps the audience along with them to an unknown destination.
What seems to be behind this production is a large and growing monologue; is, if it does not sounds [sic] too sacrilegious, the chatter of a country going through its trauma, its pioneers, the illegal thug, the ex-convict, an old ailing woman who is the Fatherland. The dialogue with the Homeland is direct, constant; Homeland is called austere, frugal, with nothing, a naked nation; a country that however does not inspire rejection in people who can really love it. Cuba’s dilemma seems to be this: people who can save the country do not know they can do it, or people who are truly followers of Martí are unaware that they are the real ones, and not those who mention him at every step.
Hernandez further identifies the political work that the ensemble does. Rather than align with the revolutionary ideals of one kind or another, the ensemble opens up other spaces—forbidden spaces that imagine what might be created in the moment of performance.
El Contingente Épico Antigonón, CEA, reclama su lugar como organización política, en una especie de militancia perversa, prohibida, y logra instituirse como identidad, que como búsqueda teatral es afín al camino que ya definió en el siglo XX el teatro postdramático. Es por ello que en su caótico ordenamiento, ocupa a la recepción la capacidad de crear, reinventar constantemente los signos producidos en la escena, en un cosmos que inicia con la palabra poética de Martí y se programa a través del barroco lenguaje de Rogelio Orizondo.
The Antigonón Epic Contingent, CEA, claims its place as a political organization, in a kind of perverse, forbidden militancy, and manages to establish itself as an identity, which as a theatrical search is akin to the path that postdramatic theater defined in the 20th century. That is why, in its chaotic order, its reception is occupied by the ability to create, to constantly reinvent the signs produced in the scene, in a cosmos that begins with the poetic word of Martí and programmed through the baroque language of Rogelio Orizondo.
If there is one thing to keep in mind, it is a thematic that comes up again and again in the Walker’s feature exhibition, Adiós Utopia: Dreams and Deceptions in Cuban Art since 1950: that the aesthetics of struggle are most visible in the conflict between the past and representations of it, mediated through an experience of the present. Many of the works on display in the exhibition echo the work of performers in Antigonón. The performance evokes a feeling not unlike viewing Sandra Ramos’s island in La maldita circunstancia del agua por todas partes (1993). In the print, a young girl lays playfully on her back in the form of the island of Cuba. Palm trees poke out of her skin and a lighthouse attaches itself to her arm—it is as if she could easily get up and shake everything off of her body, but she remains still. Why does she lay there? What do the unending waves of the vast ocean wash atop her, surrounded, as she is, by water? How has her landscape masked her joy? Her pain? What is she looking at?
Tania Bruguera’s piece, Estadística (1995-2000)—made of human hair, cardboard, and fabric—archives processes of artistic creation that undergirded community resilience in the face of profound hardship during Cuba’s Special Period (beginning in 1989). When we see the wild ragings of Antigonón’s characters onstage, how do resonances of Estadística—a Cuban flag made out of countless strands of hair—inflect our consumption of this performance? Walking under Wilfredo Prieto’s Apolítico (2001), the monochromatic flags highlight a deflated sense of patriotism. Indeed, how do the colors and forms of our symbols shape the relationship between the (non)citizen, the state, the patria, and all the spaces in between?
Antigonón closes with the performers under spotlights against a projection of El Monumento Cacahual, which commemorates the burial place of General Antonio Maceo and Francisco “Panchito” Gómez Toro during the war for independence. One version of the story goes that Maceo was mortally wounded leading a charge in battle. His aide, Panchito Gómez Toro, went back to recover his body, was killed, and the Spanish troops did not realize that they had killed Maceo—who was second-in-command at the time—and left the bodies on the field. Later, a number of the Cuban fighters went back to recover the bodies and buried both Maceo and Toro in secret.
Is this what really happened? Why does it matter that this version is the truth and not that one? There are other versions of this story, other stories, other heroes. The truth of each one of them is contingent on what must be buried for that particular truth to emerge victorious.