Theatre prof’s new play is a Cuban cocktail with a twist

Torontonians yearning to be transported to warmer climes can enjoy the experience vicariously this Sunday through a public workshop performance of York theatre Professor Judith Rudakoff’s current play-in-progress, Beautiful Little Lies.

Set in a land of sand and sun, the play is a far cry from the frost and wind chill of Toronto in March. The staged reading will be presented by Theatre Archipelago, a company dedicated to theatre from and about the Caribbean, and directed by York alumna Rhoma Spencer (MFA ’01).

Left: Judith Rudakoff

Rudakoff describes her play as "a Cuban cocktail with a twist". The story unfolds in a small city in Cuba, far from the bustle of Havana, in February of 1998. Originally titled Rum and Cola, the play’s new name derives from the famed “Cuba libre” (free Cuba) cocktail, which local bartenders call “mentirita” (little lie) when no one is listening.

The plot follows the adventures of Juancy, a Cuban transvestite performer; Suzanne, a Canadian tourist whose mother has just died; Moffi, a little white Cuban dog with attitude; Bob, a closeted male homosexual tourist; and Maria, a Cuban mother with a passion for all life has to offer. And like Cuba, the world of Beautiful Little Lies is also populated by the ever-present Orishas, the iconic and earthy spirit guides of the Afro-Cuban belief system.

Rudakoff has been working on Beautiful Little Lies on and off for about a decade. “I was in Cuba in 1998 right after the Pope’s historic visit,” she said. “There was a huge expectation of change that never really materialized. The anticipation and the hope of the people I was in contact with, many of whom were artists of different generations, inspired me to start working on a play about how you can’t begin to seek what you want until you know what you are looking for, and about discovering what ‘home’ means. All of the characters in the play are on a journey, exploring what personal and cultural identity and freedom means to them.”

Right: An image of Cuban nationals photographed by the playwright during her last trip to the island nation

A playwright, dramaturge, critic and author, Rudakoff is a research fellow at CERLAC, York University’s Centre for Research on Latin America & the Caribbean. She has a long-standing interest in Cuba, its history and its artists, with whom she has forged extensive professional and personal connections over the years. Her play Not Having was produced in Spanish translation as Sin Tener by Cuba’s Teatro Escambray at their residential theatre colony in La Macagua. It was the first Canadian play to be professionally produced by a Cuban company, and Rudakoff was the first foreigner in the company’s long and distinguished history to be named an honorary member. Another work-in-progress is The Grove, an adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, set in rural Cuba.

An early draft of Rum and Cola/Beautiful Little Lies was given a reading at York and a staged public showcase in 1998 by Montreal’s Teesri Duniya Theatre, directed by Eda Holmes. It was also read in a Spanish translation by York theatre alumnus Pablo Felices-Luna (MFA ’98) at Teatro Escambray with three generations of Cuban actors.

The 10-year development of the work was necessary, Rudakoff asserts. “I firmly believe you can’t rush these things. On a trip to Cuba in February 2008, I was inspired to shift the focus of the play. It was another extraordinary time to be in Cuba: Fidel Castro resigned while I was there. I returned to Canada on the night of a rare full moon eclipse: doors were closing and other doors were opening and Ellegua, the Orisha who is affiliated with thresholds, among other things, gave me a great big creative shove.”

Rudakoff and Spencer, a Trinidadian theatre artist, met at York eight years ago, when Spencer was pursuing a graduate degree in theatre directing. Spencer’s thesis project was Theatre @ York’s production of Federico Garcia Lorca’s landmark drama, Blood Wedding, which she transposed to Trinidad.

Right: The “Cuba libre” (free Cuba) cocktail, which local bartenders call “mentirita” (little lie)

An actor, director, playwright, comedienne and broadcast journalist, Spencer was voted one of Toronto’s top 10 theatre artists by NOW Magazine in 2005. She served as resident director of the AfriCan Theatre Ensemble before founding Theatre Archipelago in 2004. Productions she has directed for Archipelago include the critically acclaimed Twilight Café by Tony Hall at Toronto’s Theatre Centre. Her performance credits include Mad Miss by Olive Senior and the Edmonton and Toronto tour of the international hit play, Jean and Dinah.

Spencer has been involved with Beautiful Little Lies for some time. Last month, she directed a public workshop of the play with local actors at the University of the West Indies at St. Augustine, Trinidad and Tobago, as part of a three-month residency with Arts in Action, a theatre-in-education outreach unit of the school’s Centre for Creative & Festival Arts. Rudakoff was invited to attend the event.

“It was a creatively fruitful experience,” said Rudakoff. “The people of Trinidad and Cuba deeply respect the Orishas of the Yoruban pantheon, but of course the diasporic paths of the spirits and the influences of different oppressive colonial beliefs means differences abound. What was particularly gratifying is way the Trini audiences and actors engaged with the Cuban characters and Orishas. I got a new perspective on the play, and spent the five-hour flight home rewriting!”

Spencer’s company, Theatre Archipelago, is workshopping Rudakoff’s play with an eye to mounting a fully staged production in a future season. Beautiful Little Lies will be read by professional actors at the Papermill Theatre, located at the Todmorden Mills heritage site in Toronto, on March 15 at 4pm. Admission is free.