Arena Stage’s ‘Celia and Fidel’ presents 2 competing visions for Cuba’s future

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews 'Celia & Fidel' at Arena Stage (Part 1)

Arena Stage kicked off its 2021-2022 season last month after a long pandemic hiatus.

Starting Friday, it presents its second show, “Celia and Fidel,” now through Nov. 21.

“The story is about Celia Sanchez, the mother of the revolution in Cuba,” Artistic Director Molly Smith told WTOP. “It is about the fight that she has with Fidel Castro about the future of the country. It is a knock-down, drag-out [fight] about another revolution in the ’70s.”

Set in 1980s Cuba, Eduardo Machado’s dynamite play unfolds several decades after Castro usurped power in the historic revolution that ousted Fulgencio Batista in 1959.

“Andhy Mendez is playing Fidel,” Smith said. “He is a dead ringer for Fidel because he is Cuban. … When the pandemic started, he had a beard, but now his beard is all the way down to his waist. He is superb in the role. Celia is played by a wonderful local artist, Marian Licha. She is exquisite as Celia. She is classy, she is fiery, she is full of power.”

All the while, scenic designer Riccardo Hernandez visually transports us to the period.

“We are in the middle of Fidel’s brain, which was his office,” Smith said. “His office has bookcases that go 15 [or] 20 feet in the air, filled with books. It’s the brain center of Cuba.”

Surrounded by these books, Celia and Fidel lay out two competing visions for the future.

“Fidel’s vision is we’re doing everything right,” Smith said. “This is the revolution we wanted. We’re giving everybody free medicine and we’re supporting everyone through our socialist-communistic belief.”

Sanchez has a different vision for the future of the country.

“She would say that you’re not giving people what they really need, which is their own personal freedom, and without that, people will run,” Smith said. “Exactly where the people are is where we were 20 years ago when we created the first revolution, so beware Fidel, this is going to happen again. … You’ve become the dictator that you despised.”

Through it all, Sanchez becomes a heroine for human rights.

“She was really thought of as the people’s mother,” Smith said. “She created the first ice cream shops. She created statues. She created big park areas for the people. She had a huge focus on children, great education for everyone, and focused on health clinics.”

You can still see her influence today in the digital generation.

“She has really inspired whole groups of female influencers today,” Smith said. “Young women are influencing the country through what they are putting out online on TikTok. They’ve taken her as fuel for themselves in terms of being able to talk to the people.”

Today’s movement features fascinating parallels to Castro’s reign.

“We are in the middle of another revolution, which happened because of a song, ‘Patria y Vida,’ which is ‘Country or Life;’ Castro used to say, ‘Country or Death,'” Smith said. “The people are not getting COVID medication, they have no food, they have no fuel. We’ve had embargoes on them for so many decades that the people are out on the streets fighting.”

“Celia and Fidel” is the seventh play in Arena Stage’s ongoing cycle of “Power Plays.”

“The Power Play cycle is 25 plays, one for each decade of American history, starting in 1776 and going through to the 2010s — we’re going to have to add another one, 2020 now,” Smith said. “We’ve had projects like ‘The Originalist’ about Justice Scalia [and] ‘Sovereignty’ about the relationship between Cherokee people and Andrew Jackson.”

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews 'Celia & Fidel' at Arena Stage (Part 2)

Listen to our full conversation here.

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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