Staging Discomfort with Bretton White - Center for the Arts and Humanities

Staging Discomfort with Bretton White

Cuba: a country with a rich culture and a history of political turmoil. How do Cuban artists express themselves in the face of government censorship and isolation from the rest of the world? In her recent publication Staging Discomfort: Performance and Queerness in Contemporary Cuba, Assistant Professor of Spanish Bretton White (pictured left) explores the little-known realm of contemporary Cuban theater, focusing on queer Cuban plays and their political implications within an oppressive regime. The product of a decade spent in the theaters of Havana, this book addresses the ways in which discomfort can bring unity, and how art can express the fluidity of sexuality in a country which idealizes heterosexual masculinity.

White first became interested in contemporary Cuban theater back when she was working as a high school teacher and attended the National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Institute, where she took a course on 20th century Latin American theater. She went on to complete her PhD dissertation on Cuban theater, visiting Cuba more than a dozen times and attending between 50 and 80 plays, some multiple times. White was particularly interested in Cuba because of its history of strong cultural production in spite of continued government censorship and the travel and trade restrictions that complicate Cubans’ lives. Because of Cuba’s isolation, very little critical work has been done on contemporary Cuban theater, and White wanted to fill that gap in knowledge. Her book works to do just that, with each chapter focusing on a different theater group, playwright, or play, and introducing these little known artists and their works to the world. 

Staging Discomfort is not a general review of contemporary Cuban theater, but a study of specific queer plays and playwrights. Sexuality is a charged topic in Cuba, a country whose government has a strong idea of the ideal citizen– white, male, and heterosexual. While in Cuba, White befriended members of the LGBTQ community and learned more about the discrimination they experienced every day. In the 60s, queer Cubans were sent to work camps. In the 90s, Cubans with HIV were forced into sanatoriums, and not allowed to see their families. When she first started studying in Cuba in 2006, White’s friends told her that the police patrolled the areas where queer people tended to gather, and arrested and jailed anyone without their identification. Restrictions are less severe now, but “it’s not as good as the state claims,” said White.

Her examination of queer Cuban theater emphasizes the role of the spectator– how they are emotionally affected by the performance, and how they can become participants. “By bringing people together to watch these theatrical representations of queer sexuality, audiences feel different affects such as fear, longing, or frustration,” White told us. “Experienced in this collective realm, they bring a sense of unity– not a unity based on sameness, but on alternative identities.” There is also an aesthetic of fluidity in these works, which not only collapse traditional gender roles, but also the roles of spectator and performer. This often makes the spectator uncomfortable, requiring a lot of engagement, but such discomfort allows them to experience the performance more deeply. The body itself always plays a central role. “I look at these works and think that if we have Cuban bodies coming together in queer ways, we can get away from the Cuban ideal,” said White, “and multiply the ways in which Cuban citizenship can be envisioned.”

Las relaciones de Clara, Teatro El Público, Photo courtesy of Norge Espinosa Mendoza

Artists of all genders and sexualities are strictly censored in Cuba. Even in the present day, artists whose work is seen to criticize the Cuban government are regularly jailed. Decree 349, published in 2018, put into place a law that requires artists to go through government controlled art schools in order to be recognized as artists, while also requiring them to register their works in advance of any displays or performances. Artists who haven’t gone through this process aren’t allowed to practice their art, and can be detained for attempting to do so. This decree resulted in a protest of several hundred people, but is still in place. Tourists rarely visit Cuban theaters, so the government isn’t as concerned about censoring plays. However, any sort of public performances, such as street theater and performance art, are very strictly censored. For instance, in December 2014 well-known performance artist Tania Bruguera was arrested, jailed, and put under house arrest for eight months, all for a performance that simply consisted of placing a microphone in the Place de Revolución and inviting people to speak. White plans to continue exploring contentious art in her next book, which will focus on performance artists and activists who defy censorship, colonialism and racism in Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic.

Pájaros de la playa, El Ciervo Encantado, Photo courtesy of the Cuban Theater Digital Archive

In her time at Colby, White has taught two courses inspired by Staging Discomfort. In 2016, she taught the humanities lab course After the Revolutions: Masculinities and Uncertainties in Mexico and Cuba, a class which explored performance, photography, and short stories, and ended with a group performance by the students. In Spring 2019, she taught 20th Century Latin American Theater, a class which also ended with a performance by students. The Center for the Arts and Humanities provided White with funding to bring in performance artist Guillermo Gómez Peña and his collaborator Balitrónica, who conducted a five hour workshop with students. Many students were nervous at first, but ended up telling White that the workshop had been the most important experience of the semester.

White’s research on contemporary queer Cuban theater is ground-breaking, insightful, and fascinating, and we strongly recommend that you purchase her book here. We are grateful that such a dedicated scholar is part of the Colby community, and we eagerly await her next book.

Ayla Fudala, Environmental Humanities Program Coordinator, Center for the Arts and Humanities