As a content intern at the Walker, I never imagined I’d be tasked with a last-minute mission like this. But as Cuba’s Teatro El Público prepares to take the stage tonight for their Out There engagement, it’s a final, but important, detail in a performance that almost took a miracle to pull off. I’m combing through racks at TJ Maxx searching for small, mid-length men’s boxers in the colors of the Cuban flag. And two pairs of white women’s knee socks.
It was surprisingly difficult to find the proper size and color combination, but after about a half an hour, and a few calls to a patient Julie Voigt (the senior performing arts program officer here at the Walker), I had a few winners spread over several value packs of Hanes and Ralph Lauren underwear. After a hasty navigation of the Target parking lot, and a hurried conversation with a bemused employee there, I had the socks, and was on my way back to the Walker. Crisis averted.
But it wasn’t a shortage of undergarments that nearly derailed Teatro El Público’s Walker performance: it was the lengthy and complex bureaucratic process—one that has changed dramatically under the Trump administration—of getting the Havana-based company into the United States. The visa application process for the company started over the summer, after the Walker successfully convinced long-time colleagues at Under the Radar, a New York performing arts festival, to join a tour for Teatro El Público to the two festivals (both Walker Performing Arts Curator Philip Bither and UTR’s Artistic Director Mark Russell saw the production in Holland in 2016). Everyone knew that it would take a little more work than usual to obtain visas for the group, Bither says, given the tightening of US-Cuba relations and crackdowns on immigration under the Trump presidency, but they didn’t expect the ordeal that was to follow.
FUNDarte, a Miami-based cultural incubator who partnered with the tour, assisted with the visa application process. They collected testimonials and reviews to offer proof that Teatro El Público was a group of international caliber, and completed hours and hours of paperwork. When all was said and done, the company was approved for visas in late October. But approval is only the first hurdle of a many-step process. In order to enter the US, company members need to be interviewed, fingerprinted, and have their passports processed at the US embassy in their country of origin. This should have been a relatively straightforward process, but again, global politics would intervene.
Around the time Teatro El Público’s visas were approved, a mysterious illness befell several employees of the American embassy in Havana. With no guarantee from the Cuban government that it could protect US diplomats, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson pulled all non-essential embassy workers from the country. This staff reduction coupled with an already-gutted State Department rendered the Havana embassy incapable of visa processing. The decision was made that the only solution was to fly the entire company to Mexico City—the next closest US embassy, and a place where FUNDarte had connections. But embassy appointments are difficult to schedule under the best of circumstances, and the Mexico City embassy was swamped. FUNDarte fought tooth and nail to get the company an appointment, including sending a staff member who happened to be in Mexico for another festival to show up uninvited at the embassy to set an appointment.
The goal was to get Teatro El Público an appointment sometime around Thanksgiving, but the embassy said nothing until early December, when it finally scheduled the group for interviews on December 27 and 28, among the last possible days before the New Years holiday. This date was already frighteningly close to the company’s January 4 opening night, but it was made even more so by the knowledge that it typically takes an embassy a few days to process the group’s physical passports, and nothing could be done over the holiday weekend. Yet the embassy official they met with assured them they would be turned around quickly, in time to make their flight out.
Staying in a hotel in Mexico City, and anxiously awaiting the return of its members’ passports (which are always taken at this stage, following interviews), the company was largely powerless, but counting on the assurances they had received. The 29th was a Friday, followed by the three days of the holiday weekend. Their flight out was booked for the afternoon of this past Tuesday, the 2nd. Everyone collectively held their breath and hoped that the group would have their passports in time. Friday came and went, the weekend passed, and still no passports. As the minutes ticked by Tuesday morning, it became clear that the passports would not be returned in time for the company to make their flight.
Back in Minneapolis, Voigt and Bither were trying everything they could to get in touch with the embassy. They contacted the offices of Sens. Al Franken and Amy Klobuchar, while Under the Radar staffers made calls to Chuck Schumer. Finally, staff at Washington D.C.’s Kennedy Center (also on the visa for a return visit by the company in May) finally reached someone in the embassy with word mid-day on Tuesday: Teatro El Público could have their passports back on Tuesday at 3 pm—the same time their flight to Minneapolis had been scheduled. The company’s flights had to be rebooked for two separate flights the next day, and they were forced to split up and stay with various friends in Mexico City after their hotel, knowing the desperate nature of their situation, tried to charge them $500 each for an additional night.
Almost nothing about Teatro El Público journey to Minneapolis went as planned—even down to costuming decisions that should’ve happened days ago—yet here they are, poised and calm in the green room of the Walker’s McGuire stage, showing me cellphone pictures of the kind of underwear they need for their performance tonight. It’s a miraculous testament to the hard work of so many people that they’re even here at all. I can’t wait to see the show—and how that Hanes three-pack looks on-stage.