This is what happened when Alex Perez heard about his grandfather’s internment in Cuba during the 1960s.
“It was a part of family history I didn’t know about,” said Perez, whose family eventually relocated to New York, and then migrated across the Hudson River to Hudson County where he still lives.
Growing up in Union City and near the other North Hudson towns, Perez was surrounded by stories of survival, of Cuban refugees fleeing the repressive regime of Fidel Castro and Che Guravera.
But what Perez discovered was that some—like his grandfather— never made it out but were thrown into work camps where they labored and suffered torture, and many eventually died.
“My grandfather died of multiple bayonet stab wounds,” Perez said. “He was put into a work camp that worked 14 to 16 hours a day.”
Perez said he was amazed that such things were going on a mere 90 miles from Miami, one of the most beautiful places in the world.
A freelance theater director who has done work throughout Hudson County, including recently in Bayonne and North Bergen, Perez is also a playwright. He saw this tragic, yet heroic family history as a vehicle for making a larger statement, not just about those who suffered abuses under Castro, but about the nature of tyrants in every era.
“It’s ironic that this play should be coming out now when Russia just passed similar laws in that country,” Perez said. “But this could be about any country that sees some people as unfit.”
Gay people, political outcasts, people of faith, or others whom a society deems unfit can become victims of torture and murder.
Perez’s play, “Julian and Romero,” does not directly deal with the story his family members told him about his grandfather. Rather, it is a fictional account of two men who were best friends growing up—one a closeted gay man and one straight, who form a bond, despite their differing political, religious, and cultural beliefs. One is a communist soldier under Castro’s revolution, but they both must come to grips with the evil effects of the tyrannical society in which they live.
Rising above adversity
Perez said this is not a dark play of hopelessness, but one that highlights the human ability to endure and rise above adversity. It is also filled with culture of that era. Anyone who loves classic Cuban dance and music from the 1950s and 1960s will love this play.
The story is told in scenes, monologues, and with subplots at a Military Unit to Aid Production prison camp, known as a UMAP camp. It is based on the stories of men who survived those camps. Relationship issues arise between the prisoner and the soldier. It is an agonizing look at a rich cultural and social history, embracing politics, faith, American Dreams, and the will to survive against all odds.
“There aren’t that many stories out there that discuss the horrors of Cuba’s secret past,” Perez said. “It’s important that new generations are reminded of a secret world Fidel Castro claims never existed. It’s not just a Cuban story, but a human-rights issue.”
Although Cuban communities like those in West New York, Union City, and Jersey City have changed over the last few decades, there is a collective memory of that era. Many of those residents are related to people who came north from Cuba at that time and remember the horrors inflicted on loved ones.
“The fact that this is going on today in Russia shows that it is something we should be looking at and be concerned about,” Perez said.
Perez is also an actor, who recently had a role in the Batman film, “The Dark Knight Rises.” He directed and choreographed his play, which is produced by Media Killed Productions. Perez’s other credits include “Ultimate Drag Off,” “Media Killed the Video Star,” “OZ!” and “De La Guarda.”
“Julian and Romero” stars Sebastian Stimman (Julian), Gonzalo Trigueros (Romero), Edna Lee Figueroa (Bertha), Julian Juaquin (Raul) and Daren Fleming (Sgt. Cruz). Its world-premiere will be part of the Dream Up Festival at Theater for the New City, September 3 to 8 for five performances at 155 First Avenue, New York, NY 10003 (Between 9th and10th Streets): Sunday 9/3 at 9 p.m., Wednesday 9/4 at 6:30 p.m., Thursday 9/5 at 9 p.m., Sunday 9/7 at 5 p.m. and Tuesday 9/8 at 8 p.m. Tickets are on sale for $12 at the theater, at www.Smarttix.com, or by calling (212) 868-4444.
Perez said the play will likely find a more permanent performance space later this year. In the meantime, he encourages people to come out to the festival to catch their bit of historic Cuban culture.
Al Sullivan may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.