Bulla Cubana, a three-month festival of Cuban art and culture, is wrapping up this month after putting on events celebrating the country since January. The festival aims to start cultural conversation between Cuba and the North Central Florida region through food, film, music, visual art and the play “My Little Sister.”
Randy Batista, the event’s project organizer, has personal ties to Cuba as a Cuban-American, and he was motivated to both accurately honor the rich culture of Cuba, as well as to present to the citizens of Gainesville a culture that some are being introduced to for the first time.
“Everyone, of all ages, have been really happy about this festival, which is a really interesting thing in Gainesville, because it’s pretty divided between their seniors and their students,” Batista said. “We really have a great mix of both demographics involved in these events, from the Gainesville Orchestra to the different musical or art events we’ve had, we’ve always had great attendance, which is significant in showing how the events are doing.”
Batista said he chose Gainesville as his festival’s destination because of the rich Cuban and Latin community, as well as the city’s unknowing ties to the country.
“We went to Cuba with a team of other artists who select the artwork that is showing at the Thomas Center right now, it’s called ‘2 degrees west, 60 degrees of separation,’” Batista said. “Havana, Cuba and Gainesville are the same longitude, and they’re 60 degrees of separation on the latitude.”
According to the press release, Bulla Cubana is the first festival of its kind to unite the major creative centers of Gainesville in order to showcase Cuba’s art and culture through collaboration. The festival includes the alliance of artists, muralists, dancers, musicians, restaurants, photographers and filmmakers to accurately portray the richness of Cuban culture.
“If anyone who has traveled to Cuba realizes the deprivation of supplies and materials that Cuba’s had for years and in lieu of the lack of goods and necessities, one of the things you realize is that they have really stayed faithful to the arts and their culture,” Batista said. “It’s been the dragging force to really keep their dreams alive of being human beings in a situation that is not the most pleasant one to have existed for over 55 years.”
“My Little Sister” is a play written and directed by Cuban-American playwright Carlos Francisco Asse, an architect who also constructed many of the set designs for the Hippodrome State Theatre. The play, which tells the story of two sisters who still live together at ages 85 and 82, is just one of many productions that is featured at Bulla Cabana.
Janet Cohen, a director and actress at the Gainesville Community Playhouse who plays the role of younger sister Nena, said Asse originally said she was too young for the role.
“He actually told me I was too young to play this old lady, but I’ve had relatives who exhibited behavior very similar to my character’s, and I tried to channel those memories,” Cohen said. “I kept walking too quickly, sitting down too easily, and so I tried to not do a stooped caricature but simply to know what it feels like to have nowhere to go day after day.”
Cohen, who previously worked with Asse in “Agnes of God” and “Lend Me a Tenor” at the playhouse, said it can be both rewarding and intimidating to work with someone who has written his or her own work.
“Working with an author means that, even more than usual, you don’t want to ‘have words left over,’” Cohen said. “That’s a saying from a theater I used to work at, that is, you want both word and intent to be exact and as he wrote it because, let’s face it, he gave you the gift of the part and now you are giving it back to him hopefully as he wanted it to be.”
“My Little Sister,” which is told in three scenes and one epilogue, depicts the life of these women, which from any other writer may have been mundane.
“The day of these women have three highlights, which is breakfast, lunch, dinner and a few perks, the visit of a mailman, some fresh strawberries, a phone call and that’s it,” Cohen said. “However, Mr. Asse wants to show us that they had dreams and loves, they have memories, and they can still fight, cry, laugh, sing and even swear. There is not an age limit on feeling.”
Cohen, who recently just finished directing “Tshepang” at the Actors’ Warehouse, knows firsthand Gainesville has a lot to offer in terms of culture and art.
“It amazes me that more people don’t take advantage of this wealth of inspiration, and I haven’t even mentioned the offerings from the University of Florida and the music scene,” Cohen said. “So come see ‘My Little Sister,’ and go see as much as you can and as often as you can.”
“My Little Sister” will run for a final time Monday at 7 p.m. at the Hippodrome.
Bulla Cubana continues through the end of March with a collaboration of weekly events that can be seen on its website at bullacubana.org.