BIENVENIDOS BLANCOS! NOIR — The Cigarette Stubs Version

Disclaimer: This article is a work of satire based on a previously published interview with director Alex Torra. This work aims to satirize the student journalist’s creative process rather than the play BIENVENIDOS BLANCOS or the interviewee. The circumstances surrounding the interview are completely fictional. Please do not sue us. 

      “BIENVENIDOS BLANCOS! OR WELCOME WHITE PEOPLE!,” an ensemble show about Cuban and Cuban-American identity that had its world premiere at the Philadelphia FringeArts Festival in 2018, came to the LPAC mainstage on Feb. 14 as part of the Cooper Arts Series. The performance was accompanied by a number of performance workshops which took place on Feb. 8 and 18 and were open to all community members. On Feb. 5, we sent Amaechi Abuah to sit down with Alex Torra, the show’s director and Professor of Theater here at the college to talk about the show’s Swarthmore debut and his life as an educator and artist. The transcript of said conversation was made publicly available in The Phoenix’s Feb. 6 issue. Abuah’s full article, however, was purposefully withheld from print — until now.

        I hit the pavement again last week, at last, for the first time in over three years, keeping my head to the ground with a well-trained nose and looking for the next big story to break. But the ground was frozen shut beneath me — Mother Nature withholding her sweet secret secretions. As my usual leads all turned up empty or cold or dead, finally, one dank and weather-darkened afternoon, my editor called me into her office.

       “We’re taking you off the news beat, A. I’m sorry, but you just can’t cut it like the young blood we have out pounding the streets now.”

       I looked out the window into the rising storm.

       “We’re putting you on the theater scene beat, A. That’s the best I can do for you. I’m sorry.”

       I swear, if I had heard from anyone but myself I wouldn’t have believed it. So that was it. The end of my career. After two long years of neck-breaking service, working twenty-hour days on weekends, taking all the stories the other reporters were either too lazy or too chicken-shit to handle, and one day the DG packs up, dismantled by political infighting bred by right-wing corporate-money-bought instigators and violent institutional censorship, your old boss takes you aside; tells you to lay low in the breeze for a while till the heat’s off, years pass, you play it safe in McCabe 326, the one that’s so small and far up that everyone forgot it existed, till, finally, you gather the nerve to come back just in time for them to hand you a card full of lies and put you down like Old Yeller in the snow. 

       Anybody with any respect or reverence for objective journalism will remember that my reporting on this campus led in times of deep crisis to the resolvement of some of the greatest Swarthmore mysteries in recent memory. Since the day that I first took up the pen, I made it my personal burden to champion the cause of the unheard and the overlooked, the downtrodden and the afraid, to investigate justice, equality but, above all, truth!!

       At great personal risk to life and limb, I single-handedly cracked the Pubsafe conspiracy of 2017 wide open. Thanks to my efforts in the field, the Ratville Five will probably never see the light of day again.

       And now they have me running around dressing rooms, interviewing entitled white pseudo-intellectual middle-aged millenials about finger-painting and La La Land. 

       For my first job, I was assigned to interview one Alex Torra, a well-known character about these parts; a supposed Don Juan around the local Theater Department. I arrived at the door to his office at 3:45 p.m. sharp. He opened after the fourth knock. His breath carried the scent of cigarette stubs and memories of far away… 

       “Hi!”

       “Good evening,” I answered curtly, coming inside. “Nice office.”

       “Thank you! Would you like the chair or the sofa?”

       I placed myself on the sofa.

       “I take it as my credo that a real journalist will always make himself as comfortable as possible.”

       “I don’t think that’s true —” 

       “WHAT DO YOU KNOW ABOUT TRUTH??”

       I flipped briskly through my notes.

       “What made you dedicate your show to white people? In the title, I mean. Is it because you yourself are white?”

       “You … I mean … I hope you can detect a little bit of irony in that title.”

       “Perhaps. Perhaps … I suppose maybe what I could ask instead is, how do you hope an audience of Swarthmore residents and students will see the show? Having seen how it was received at its opening two years ago in Philadelphia? And how does that relate to your pedagogy?”

       “Yeah I mean — first of all, I never intended to be a teacher. That wasn’t a thing that I aspired to as a young person and in my twenties and thirties. It snuck up on me. And so I took teaching work, at other places and at Swarthmore, to be honest, because I needed some income —“

       What was that? An angle that might be worth my time? One hand placed surreptitiously on the phone in my left trouser pocket, I carefully pressed record…

       “And I was always surprised,” he went on, oblivious, “when at 35, 36 people were like ‘Oh you have enough experience to teach young people about theater’ and I was like ‘yeah sure okay I’ll go I’ll try it. I mean, I need to make a little money and it sounds like it could be fun.’ I actually had some pretty hard experiences teaching in another school in Philly prior to Swarthmore and I really was like — I don’t know. I don’t know If I want to do this as supplemental income to my life as an artist. And then I started working at Swarthmore and … something changed. I’ve been thinking about the word ‘nourishment’ a lot.”

       “Interesting,” I said. The chump.

       “As for the show, I think the responses are really varied. There isn’t one. I think the thing that we really learned at the premiere is that with this show, people have different entry points.  You see a lot of different-looking people on stage; there are people who identify as a white American and people who identify as Latin or Latino or Latina or Cuban or Cuban dash American. It’s just like a variety of experiences. I think what it does is, I think it tries to move the camera angle on how we look at Cuba. For many people, I feel like it’s a really like US-based view of Cuba, I think especially in the last like ten years or so because Cuba has opened up to tourism, there’s a way in which a lot of Americans treat Cuba as a, and many parts of the world, as like places for vacation, right? There can be like an education component to this kind of vacationing, but it really is still a vacation. It’s a break. And so there’s a way in which that place becomes a place that is good for the American. The thing that you don’t see as a tourist in Cuba is what the experience is on the ground. And in the U.S. as a Cuban-American, you don’t see that very often and it just became important for us to do that.”

       It was the same bullshit-inclusivity-nice-guy act I’d seen a thousand times before from similarly self-deluded would-be passive progressivists and arm-chair activists. And at least those guys could act. I didn’t buy it for one second.

       “It’s interesting, actually,” I said, leaning forward, very casual, “that you mention white people taking a break, because don’t you think that’s similar to going to the theater? Hmm?” I continued. “Like when, say, people go to the theater to see your play, and yes it’s an educational experience but isn’t it also a break for them, like you said?

       “Yeah. Yes it is. But the theater at its core is about empathy. There’s an emotional experience to it. And we’re crafting the experience not to make any money. if you’re coming to Miami or to Cuba as a tourist and I am entertaining you then my first priority is to make some money. But the theater setting, the artistic setting is a different transaction. It’s a human transaction. It’s in the end ultimately like an empathetic transaction where we ask you in the audience to feel for us or the characters we create.”

       “So what you’re saying is,” I said sitting up, “and tell me if I have this correct, that if you were approached today by, say, a trio of cloven capitalist pigs and they said to you, ‘Hey Alex, we love the show, absolutely phenomenal, just change this, this, and this so we can turn it into a tasteless farce and take it to Broadway and make you bags of money’…  you wouldn’t say yes?”

       “There are things like that. It’s like the Gloria Stefan musical. There’s also like, there’s a show that’s out of Cuba that’s up now that one of our actors did. I don’t remember what it’s called, but there’s plenty of “like sell the culture,” like send the culture out from Miami and Havana there’s many, many things like that. [laughing] That’s how most things in the world work.”

      Of course! I mean, how did I not realize before? At last, my eyes were opened and I could see the whole thing clearly now.       

       I will admit that I did not go into writing this story with the highest of expectations, and I will concede that it is possible my initial strong feelings may have caused me to stray ever-so-slightly from my usually unwavering standards of journalistic professionalism and not consider the story for all of its nuances. But my encounter with the director Alex Torra has completely changed my views. I now see that theater may be the most important thing happening on Swarthmore’s campus today. I am not convinced that this whole thing — this so-called Bienvenidos Blancos — isn’t in reality a massive propaganda machine for white exceptionalism, paid for by our tuition fees and posing benignly as harmless multi-ethnic entertainment in order to pull the wool over our eyes and slip wholly undetected beneath our collective cultural radar. We’ve already established, by his own admission, that Alex Torra is a man highly motivated by money. I have the tapes to prove it. And now that I think of it, there’s something about some of his other answers that doesn’t seem to line up as well. It’s obvious to me now that there’s more to this case than meets the eye. And the only way to find out what, is for me to go see this show for myself…  

Stay skeptics, Swatties… 

Your irrepressible correspondent,

Amaechi Abuah

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