Credit: Margot Schulman

The Mariel Boatlift is having a moment. 

In October, economist David Card won the Nobel Prize, in part for his research proving that an influx of 125,000 Cuban immigrants who arrived in Miami during 1980 had no negative impact on American workers in south Florida. The Cubans arrived during an eight-month period when Fidel Castro allowed residents, including anyone incarcerated or institutionalized, to leave the island via the Port of Mariel. 

Celia and Fidel, an encyclopedic new play at Arena Stage, imagines how conversations might have occurred during the 48 hours before the port was opened for the historical exodus. Andhy Mendez leads a cast of four and depicts Castro as a salsa-dancing dictator, always one swig of Bacardi away from coming completely unhinged. In the play’s most engaging moments, Mendez exchanges witty barbs with Marian Licha, who plays Celia Sánchez, Castro’s real-life right-hand woman.

“I was your comrade, your mother, your mistress, and your wife, all at the same time,” she says, while Mendez leans in to light a cigar.

In the play’s most confounding moments, Castro puffs away and argues with his secretary Consuelo (Heather Velazquez) and a fictional American diplomat (Liam Torres) about his attempts to spread Marxism in Africa. “Tell Carter I will never leave Angola,” Castro commands.

Yes, Angola. The characters pedantically debate how much President Jimmy Carter cares that, along with the Soviet Union, Cuba sent troops to the African nation in 1975 and stuck around. It’s a historical footnote that may send younger theatergoers scrambling to pull up Wikipedia at intermission. But the fact is, most Arena Stage patrons are old enough to remember diving under their desks during the Cuban missile crisis. Celia and Fidel is an Arena Stage commission, and it’s not cynical to think director Molly Smith’s goal was to produce a play featuring Latinx characters and centering juicy women’s roles that would appeal to older Washingtonians interested in politics.

Celia and Fidel checks all those boxes. Unfortunately, Eduardo Machado’s script never evolves into a suspenseful historical drama that would intrigue a broader audience. It helps immensely to walk in either with cogent memories of the 1970s or legit expertise in Latin American politics. (That’s why I enlisted Mike Paarlberg—longtime City Paper contributor and assistant professor of political science at Virginia Commonwealth University—to see Celia and Fidel with me.) 

Only late in Act II does Machado’s theatrical intentions become clear: A reimagining of two days in the spring of 1980 when Castro could have decided on a different outcome—an attempt at peace with the U.S. 

Complicating that narrative trajectory: Sánchez died of lung cancer in January 1980, so she appears in the play as a conjured ghost. Her arrival is usually preceded by flashing lights and thunderstorm sound effects, as if someone is rotating an 18th century wind machine offstage. Ideally, Smith and her design team would have come up with a more creative signifier to indicate Sánchez’s presence. 

“I brought her back from the dead just now. It must be jealousy,” Castro says, insisting to his new secretary that Sánchez is nearby, organizing his desk and offering political advice.

“Mysticism and socialism don’t mix,” Consuelo counters. “You’ve been corrupted by Gabriel García Márquez. I know he claims to be on our side. But ‘Magical Realism’ is just more opium for the masses.”

That’s a great zinger for the English major set, but Márquez and Castro were real-life fishing buddies. Surely Machado could have had more fun using magical realism as a plot device. We do know he has revised the play, which actually opened for one night in March of 2020 and closed the next day due to the coronavirus pandemic. “Machado has done some amazing rewrites,” Smith’s notes in the program. “The actors’ work has also deepened.”

Smith, however, saddles her cast with a cumbersome challenge—perform in English, but with Cuban accents. All four actors face an uphill battle to avoid caricature. Usually when English-language scripts are set in other countries, directors forgo the accents (ever seen an Austrian-accented Sound of Music?). I’m not saying it’s the wrong choice, but it is the harder one. 

Mendez and Torres, in their roles as lascivious cigar smokers, can get away with playing suave Latin stereotypes. The women, meanwhile, struggle to become complex protagonists. “A great mind and a very beautiful package,” the diplomat says of Consuelo. Late in Act I, she announces that thousands of Cubans are seeking asylum in the Peruvian embassy, creating a political crisis for Castro, which he ultimately solves by releasing the asylum seekers, along with prisoners and people institutionalized for mental health issues, via the Port of Mariel. 

How tempted was Castro to resolve the Peruvian embassy debacle diplomatically? Probably not very, speculates Paarlberg.

“Very few people know what Castro was like as a person, because he was so careful about his image and so private about his personal life,” Paarlberg says. The source for most gossipy details about the dictator—including fishing trips with Márquez—comes from his bodyguard’s memoir, which was not published until 2014. 

“I question a little bit the decision to make him seem capricious, a little out of control, and even silly,” Paarlberg says. “The way history books make it seem, he was in control [of the Mariel boatlift] the whole time. He saw it as an opportunity and he took it, and he ended up coming out on top of the U.S. He said, ‘I flushed Cuba’s toilets on the United States.’ That wasn’t true—many Marielitos were from lower socioeconomic backgrounds than earlier exiles, but they certainly weren’t all criminals. It was a propaganda coup, and many U.S. media outlets bought it.” 

In the play, Machado presents Castro’s decision to release prisoners along with the asylum seekers as rash and tragic, one that close allies discouraged him from making. For the record, Paarlberg enjoyed Celia and Fidel more than I did, wisely pointing out that if the playwright was going to “rewrite history,” he was smart to focus on the Mariel Boatlift rather than less obscure events like the Cuban missile crisis or Bay of Pigs invasion.

Still, I’d say as a theater critic, if a playwright is going to take so much license with historical accounts—there is a ghost running around onstage in espadrilles and smoking cigars with a fictional diplomat, FFS—then the end result should have been a play that was more entertaining, cohesive, and ultimately more compelling than the Wikipedia entry about the real thing.  

Celia and Fidel runs through Nov. 21 at Arena Stage, 1101 6th. St. SW. arenastage.org. $76–$105.