Wrestling with the 'ghosts of ideas'

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This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

It takes me a moment to notice it.

An usher announces that if we want to read the subtitles in English we should move to the back of the theater to see them. No one moves. It's at that point, that it hits me -- everyone around me in the audience is speaking Spanish. That shouldn’t be odd, especially in Los Angeles -- but in a theater it still is.

I'm downtown at LATC to see 10 Million a Cuban production that's part of the Encuentro de las Américas theater festival.

The Festival, which is entering its last week, is a celebration of Latin theater from the Americas. Fourteen companies from six countries are presenting shows. It's the kind of work that really makes LATC shine. The architecturally odd four-theater complex in the heart of downtown is at its best when it's huge lobby is filled with energy and intersecting audiences each about to see a different show.

10 Million, the show I saw, is from Cuba's Argos Teatro. Written and directed by Carlos Celdrán, it's a stunning and simple autobiographical coming of age story. We follow a boy who doesn't quite fit in. Our journey begins in the late 60s when he's just about to start second grade. His family is split by the revolution: his mother has become a party favorite embracing the new opportunities; his father, who seemed something of a catch before the revolution, what with his middle class family and education, now feels like a liability to his political mother. The result of this political divorce is a father who only sees his son for a month each summer and a mother who's nicknamed "the captain" and is trying to harvest 10 million tons of sugar cane -- hence the title of the play.

The magic of the show is that it is simultaneously a private story of a family torn apart and a political history about the very personal impacts of Cuba's revolution.

The performance itself embraces a minimalist approach. The only prop is a blue vinyl duffel bag that the boy totes from place to place as he's shuttled from boarding school to his father’s and back. The set is a low platform, backed by a chalkboard wall upon which the titles of the scenes are scribbled: "dream," "voyage," "encounters," "politics." The whole story is brought to life by four actors portraying the boy, his mother, father, and a narrator who comes to embody the functionaries of the state.

10 Million is one of those narratives where you think you know how it's going to evolve -- which familiar trap it will fall into -- only to surprise you by opting for a deeper, more personal journey. If you know Cuban politics even in passing, you can feel that these personal details are speaking to a deeper national reckoning. But the magic of specificity is that it translates beyond country and politics. The pain and struggle of reckoning with a past that no longer exists, or as they say in the play "the ghosts of ideas," that's all too powerful and familiar.

10 Million plays again this Friday November 18.

The Encuentro de las Américas Festival continues downtown at LATC through Sunday.

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Running time: 90 minutes without an intermission

Photo courtesy of Argos Teatro