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Roger Robinson of Strawberry & Chocolate on Why You Should Care About Gays in Cuba

The Tony Award winner is directing the English-language premiere of Senel Paz's new play.

Roger Robinson

In 1979, by then two decades into Fidel Castro's Communist revolution, Cuba decriminalized sodomy. The same could not be said in the United States until the 2003 Supreme Court decision Lawrence v. Texas. Still, was it better to be gay in Cuba than in the U.S.? The legal reform that decriminalized sodomy in Cuba simultaneously expanded that country's "public scandal" law to punish those people who, "make a public display of their homosexual condition or bother or solicit another with homosexual requests." If you have trouble wrapping your head around what constitutes a "homosexual request" ("May I borrow your copy of Judy at Carnegie Hall?"), you'll definitely want to see the English-language premiere of Senel Paz's Strawberry & Chocolate at 777 Theater.

That play, about three Cuban men, also takes place in 1979, a year of ambiguous change for gay Cubans. Diego (Dominican-American actor and theater owner Roy Arias) is a gay artist unhappy with the Castro regime. He befriends David (A.J. Cedeño), a university student. David's fervently pro-Castro classmate Miguel (Andhy Mendez) sees Diego as a counterrevolutionary and wants David to spy on him. At that time, Cubans regularly informed on their friends and neighbors to the secret police, and gay people were often targets of suspicion. A popular slogan of the day was "Friendship ends where duty begins," meaning that one's duty to the revolution trumped any friendship. Will David accommodate Miguel's super-macho, decidedly nonhomosexual request? Which is more important to him: his duty or friendship? Thousands of Cubans have had to ask themselves this question over the last 50 years, making Paz's play a still-timely examination of the national psyche.

Tony Award-winning actor and director Roger Robinson (Joe Turner's Come and Gone) has spent a lot of time in Latin America, including a brief stint in Cuba in the mid-'90s. He's fluent in Spanish, but when producer and translator Eugene Nuñez invited him to direct the English-language premiere of the popular Cuban play and film Fresa y Chocolate, Robinson jumped at the chance.

TheaterMania spoke with Robinson about his passion for this project and how, even though Strawberry & Chocolate is set in a foreign country, its themes hit close to home.

What about this story interested you?

It's about tolerance. There was tremendous persecution of gays in Cuba, as you may well know from the film Before Night Falls. There's so much about gay rights in the forefront of our society now. Gay rights, specifically gay marriage, are probably the last frontier in terms of the civil rights movement. What the lead character Diego undergoes with David is about tolerance. They become friends in this play, and David learns about tolerance. David starts out speaking the party line, condemning gays. He ends up understanding more through his relationship with this gay man, Diego. He is responsible, in the end, for Diego leaving the island.

Why was it so dangerous to be gay in Cuba?

Anybody could say, "My neighbor is gay." These people would be sent to be reeducated in concentration camps. Reinaldo Arenas, who wrote Before Night Falls, ended up in El Morro, a famous prison in Havana. If you were deemed to be gay or an intellectual, you were sent for reeducation in these camps where they harvested sugarcane. I likened it to the McCarthy era in the United States. There was this campaign of fear in which people could name names and dispose of enemies.

Have you been to Cuba?

I was there in '96 and '97. Since Raúl Castro has taken over, thing have relaxed somewhat. The average salary is still twenty-two dollars a month. You are assigned work too. You don't get to choose. The state very tightly regulates that. They also regulate where people can live. You can't just move into Havana from the countryside. You have to have permission to move. They control the population that way. I bought a lot of stuff on the black market when I was there. The tourist stores have everything. The average Cuban can't go there. They're paid in Cuban pesos, but tourists have what they call the "convertible peso," which is equal to the dollar. That's the only thing that we're legally allowed to have.

Most Americans aren't able to visit Cuba. Is there a big disparity between what the tourists of Cuba see and how average Cubans live?

There are a lot of Europeans and Mexicans running the hotels. They can't own them, but they run them in conjuncture with the state. Tourism replaced sugar as the number-one industry. Under Bush, travel became much more restricted. Because of NAFTA, Canada was compelled to report Americans traveling to Cuba via Canada. You can go through the Dominican Republic. They have four flights a day from Santo Domingo. You can go through Mexico, although the Mexicans may try to get money from you to keep from reporting it...If you speak Spanish, though, you can get away with going to Cuba as an American.

Why were gay people seen as potential threats to the revolution?

As Diego points out in the play, they're subject to blackmail. It's the same thing that happened here in the '50s. I remember when [former Under Secretary of State] Sumner Wells was outed. He was an older man who served in several administrations. There was a perception, both here and in Cuba, that they're not to be trusted: They're vulnerable because of their sexuality. It's the same rationale behind "don't ask, don't tell." I was in the navy during the Vietnam era. There was a great deal of witch-hunting that went on quietly. I was a musician in Anacostia [a naval base in Washington, D.C.], and one of the guys in the music school was outed. He was on duty, and he allegedly went into the barracks and touched someone inappropriately. Now, what I think happened was two guys were caught having sex and one of them turned against the other. The guy was drummed out of the service. The same thing was going on in Cuba. Also there's the Catholicism of that country, even though the state is officially atheist. They're very family-oriented in the Caribbean. They want the families to grow and continue. All of this means that, although sodomy has been decriminalized for years, it is still effectively illegal to be gay in Cuba.

Strawberry & Chocolate plays 777 Theater through December 29.