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Tourism, “Tradition,” and the Politics of Humor in the Cuban Play “¡Guan Melón! ¡Tu Melón!”

By Rebecca L. Salois

¡Guan Melón! ¡Tu Melón! is a relatively new Cuban play which debuted in 2016 at the Festival Internacional de Teatro de La Habana. I attended performances during the opening weekend of its latest run at El Ciervo Encantado theater in El Vedado, La Habana, Cuba this past September.

Directed by the talented Nelda Castillo (founder and director of El Ciervo Encantado theater group), and starring Mariela Brito, Olivia Rodríguez, and Yindra Regüeifero (pictured left), ¡Guan Melón! ¡Tu Melón! presents a somewhat seemingly exaggerated display (as described in the program) of “the Cuban tourism marketplace” today. It uses traditional Cuban songs, jokes, sayings, and attitudes to demonstrate a humoristic interpretation of the reality of Cuba’s newly revived tourism boom, and plays with words in both Spanish and English to emphasize a focus on international tourism. But as Castillo explained after the opening night performance, there is very little fabrication here. The various displays of fodder for tourists in ¡Guan Melón! ¡Tu Melón! are very much a reality. The only exaggeration is the condensing of these tourist trappings into two individuals.

Choteo, the focus of my current research, is a humor that reveals the tensions between social, political, economic, and/or cultural sectors, and responds to the gaps within these sectors. Through mockery, choteo is used to demonstrate an individual or group’s discontent and frustration with a given situation. It simultaneously criticizes while containing tones of resignation from the one who uses it. ¡Guan Melón! ¡Tu Melón! flawlessly weaves this humoristic choteo together with tradition throughout the entire production.

As the audience enters the theater, peaceful sounds of the ocean and sea birds can be heard, and we see the crow’s nest of a ship with two women crouched down inside of it and facing away from the audience. Once the audience has been seated, the boat horn sounds, and the two women (pictured left) slowly rise up and turn to face the audience. They will remain in this location for the duration of the performance. These nameless women are grotesque, sun-burned caricatures of the ways in which foreign tourists might perceive Cubans, and their looks only become more exaggerated as the play continues.

Throughout the performance, the two women sing a variety of traditional Cuban songs that many Cuban members of the audience appeared to be familiar with, as some occasionally sang along each night I attended. These women are not directing their songs to their Cuban audience, however; they are instead singing for a group of foreign tourists—presumably on a cruise ship. They also make jokes and play with words in a way that exemplifies choteo. Each and every item that the two women on the boat add to their costume (packets of peanuts, the 3 CUP—or Cuban Peso—bill with Che Guevara on it, the giant cigars, the bongos, the maracas, the Cuban dogs, and the hat with the caiman and the Cuban and American flags) combined with their verbal interactions, only furthers the foreign-tourist-held stereotypes about Cubans.

And while the characters in the play appear to be speaking to tourists, these same tourists are not the intended audience for the actual play, as could be gathered from the almost exclusively Cuban audience. El Ciervo Encantado is a newer theater, and it is doubtful that it would be mentioned in guidebooks for foreigners (it certainly was not in mine). Its location, on the western end of Vedado and far from Habana Vieja and Centro Habana, is unlikely to be discovered by tourists, who are not intent on finding it. It is quite possible that I was the only non-Cuban in the audience, and even more likely that I was the only person from the United States in attendance.

The songs presented by these women are interspersed with vignettes by the third member of the cast—Yindra, “a student from the Higher Art Institute of Cuba,” who does whatever she can to get through each month. This “whatever” entails a variety of small jobs, including selling chocolates, teaching dancing lessons, acting as a moving statue (pictured left), and giving guided expeditions—all of these for foreign tourists. She too speaks more to the tourists than to the members of the theater audience. While all of her lines are spoken in Spanish, many are translated into English as well, again emphasizing the idea that she is speaking to actual tourists and not to a Cuban theater audience.

While discussing the production with me after the performance, Castillo reinforced the idea that in order to make money to survive beyond what the State provides, many Cubans perform these acts for tourists. The audience was laughing throughout the play, but my conversation with Castillo suggested that there is also a resignation apparent in their attitudes toward this production. The audience laughs because the actions of these women are humorous, but they also understand that ¡Guan Melón! ¡Tu Melón! reflects actual elements of today’s Cuban reality. Castillo alluded to the idea that members of the audience understood the struggles that the art student goes through while simultaneously finding humor in the song and dance act performed by the other two women.

At the end of the play, we hear the boat horn once again, and with it, the two women (pictured left) wind down their performance, slowly turning away from the audience and folding themselves back up into the ship’s crow’s nest, suggesting that they are merely objects that come out to perform for the tourists and then hide away until the next time they are wanted. While there is sadness in their objectification, there was mainly laughter from the audience. While I too was laughing during the performance, I was also able to consider the seriousness of the reality being criticized. And the use of choteo throughout both acknowledged the discontentment with and desire to change this reality, and reflected a resignation that there is little that can be done to avoid it.

I left the theater torn between the production’s humor and the problems that it highlighted. If anything, as a tourist myself, from a country that has only recently reopened diplomatic relations with Cuba, ¡Guan Melón! ¡Tu Melón! strengthened my perspective of how to better be a tourist in this “real Cuba,” which, as aptly described in the program, is a “vibrant mix of history and music, poetry and passion, adventure and astonishingly rich culture.”


Discover international theater in the December 2016 issue, The World on Stage: Micro-Plays in Translation

Read literature from Cuba in the May 2016 issue, On Cuban Time: New Writing from the Island.

Published Jan 5, 2017   Copyright 2017 Rebecca L. Salois

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