By Sheila Wickouski
In March 2020, the pandemic forced Arena Stage’s production of Celia and Fidel, written by Eduardo Machado, to close the same day it opened. On October 8, the cast and crew will prepare for another opening night of this world premiere production.
Set during a critical moment in the Cuban revolution, when 10,000 citizens sought asylum at the Peruvian Embassy, Machado’s play imagines vivid conversations between Fidel Castro and his real-life confidante and Cuba’s most influential female revolutionary, the deceased Celia Sánchez. Infused with magical realism, the play is a work of fiction based on historical events.
Arena Stage Artistic Director Molly Smith directed the production. Smith provided an interview to The Southwester, which has been lightly edited for clarity.
The Southwester: How does it feel to bring this production back?
Molly Smith: Great. I know that this time away has meant that the play has lived more inside of us, that the actors’ work will be deeper. Eduardo has done some pretty amazing rewrites. Plus, we are able to rehearse on our set and be in the Kogod Cradle from now until the end of the run, which is really unusual and blissful.
SW: What preconceptions did you have about Cuba and the United States’ response and involvement in Cuba prior to bringing this to the stage? What has changed?
MS: I have so many associations with Fidel and Cuba. My mother was a social worker in 1961 and was involved with the Pedro Pan movement. She flew to Miami to pick up 250 Cuban children who were escaping the country under the belief that their parents would come to pick them up within weeks. Some did, some came years later and Castro stopped some from emigrating and they were forever separated. I remember in 1962 during the Cuban missile crisis or Bay of Pigs, going down to the basement with my grandmother in the canned fruit cellar looking for places to hide if a nuclear bomb went off. I was ten. I have visited Cuba and was saddened by the impact of the embargo. I am not surprised at the recent protests and hope they achieve their goals for more freedom. I think there was joy in the country and a sense of entrepreneurship when [former President Barack] Obama relaxed restrictions, and that was taken away again by [former President Donald] Trump.
SW: While Cuba is much in the news, many have never heard of Celia Sánchez. Why do you think she is so left out of the history of Cuba that is presented to the rest of the world?
MS: Celia Sánchez was the Mother of the Revolution and Castro’s closest confidant. Honestly, I think her missing story represents the missing story of many women around the world who make huge contributions, but their male counterparts are credited and accounted for much more. In Cuba, however, her presence and legacy is much more evident.
SW: What are some of your experiences in revisiting this production? Had you visited Cuba before preparing for this production?
MS: Twenty years ago, my partner Suzanne and I traveled to Cuba with the Washington Ballet, and we went to Cuba again a month before we started working on Celia and Fidel in 2020. We soaked up the joy and pain that is contemporary Cuba, experienced amazing artists in dance, music and visual arts, walked the streets and corridors that Fidel and Celia and our fictional characters Manolo and Consuelo walked. We delved into the culture of the Island. I think this was critical in preparing to put the play on stage. Revisiting this play now, with the important political movement happening there, I hope to educate and empower Americans to support the Cuban people’s goal of freedom from oppression.
SW: This is Arena Stage’s seventh production in the Power Play Cycle. What do you see as the success of the Power Plays?
MS: Arena’s Power Plays initiative is focused on American stories of politics and power, exploring the people, events and ideas that have helped shape our country’s narrative and identity. These works have the ability to show America at its best and worst, to bring people together who may not otherwise find themselves in the same room and to introduce audiences to historical figures they may not know or understand. While Celia and Fidel is about Cuba, it also illuminates America’s relationship with Cuba, which completely aligns with our mission to understand who we are as Americans. The ultimate success of the Power Plays will be to build a contemporary canon of work about the American experience and all the diverse and expansive voices within it.
Arena Stage’s production of Celia and Fidel runs from October 8 through November 21, 2021. More information, ticket sales and video highlights are available at
https://www.arenastage.org/tickets/2021-22-season/celia-and-fidel/. Southwest Night is November 18.