Talking With Yu Ho-Jin, The Manipulator

This week, we are pulling a little sleight-of-hand by sharing this “Behind the Persona” feature from the Straz Center’s INSIDE magazine featuring Yu Ho-Jin, The Manipulator, from The Illusionists, which returns to Tampa Sept. 23.

YuHo-Jin-Smoke

How did you get started in the business?
I got into magic at the age of nine after witnessing a magician doing a stage card manipulation act. Eventually my parents, who were opposed to me performing magic, became my greatest supporters when they realized the passion I had for it. Soon I began to receive awards at various magic competitions. When I was 19, I won the Grand Prix award in the stage magic division at the International Federation of Magic Societies’ 2012 World Championship of Magic in Blackpool, England. This gave me the opportunity to perform around the world.

What’s always in your refrigerator?
There is always Korean food in my refrigerator. I love ice cream; I am huge big fan of it. Also eggs and ham. And not in the refrigerator, but in the kitchen, there are bananas.

What is your worst quality?
Hmm … hard to say (laughs). Well, I love to cook but am not very good at it. So I eat bananas.

What music is on your playlist?
Classical music played on the piano is a passion of mine. It inspires me. While I’m a fan of most music, hip-hop gets me moving.

What’s your favorite place to vacation?
Natural wonders make me very happy. Of course, the best place for vacation is anywhere my family and friends can join me. Someday I hope to show my family Florida.

What are your thoughts about our great state of Florida?
Miami is one of the places where I want to stay for a long vacation with my family. Florida has unique natural landscapes and a beautiful coastline. I can’t wait to enjoy Florida!

Read any good books lately?
I used to devour self-help books about self-management, leadership and communication skills but these days, I look for a good novel for an escape.

Ginger or Mary Ann?
Well, I like both, but if I have to choose only one, Mary Ann.

What’s the greatest thing since sliced bread?
There are too many choices! To me, the Internet and computer, hands down. Without the ability to search, download music, play games and send emails, I cannot imagine what we would do with our lives.

What’s your “guilty pleasure” television show?
I usually don’t watch television. When I travel and I am feeling lonely, I will watch a Korean mini-series.

Who or what inspires you?
I respect my friends, like the other performers who work with me in The Illusionist shows. Theyinspire me in every moment. Also, I respect David Copperfield and the way he has made his own magical world.

What do you consider your greatest successes – personally and professionally?
Personally, of course, I love my mother, father, sisters. Without my family, what does my life mean? Professionally, I want to create more mystery and wonder using my magical inspiration and share my magical creations with people around the world.

If you hadn’t chosen a career as an illusionist, what other career path do you think you’d have followed?
Well right now, this is my dream and it works. I just concentrate on my present.

 

manipulator

Witness the Strength of Street Knowledge – A Day Talking Race, Culture and Percussion with Conga Legend Gumbi Ortiz

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Gumbi Ortiz playing the conga drums in his studio in Gulfport, FL.

I. The Lesson, Part 1

“Don’t be scared! You’re tip-toeing like you’re nervous.”

We were nervous.

There we were, in Gumbi Ortiz’s private recording studio in Gulfport, FL, getting an impromptu conga lesson—and Gumbi Ortiz is, after all, one of the greatest percussionists alive.

We don’t play drums.

“Put the tips of your hands here . . . palm, tip, tip palm tip. Like that. Now we’re gonna add the boom boom part, and it’ll make all the sense in the world. Don’t rush it.”

But we wanted to rush it. We wanted to break off and triple-double-quadruple speed through the sickest of the African fusion rhythms we’d been hearing from him for the greater part of the last three hours. But we couldn’t. Because we were not good. Our skill level matched toy-monkey-with-snare-drum.

Palm tip, TIP PALM -TIP.

Palmtip TIP PALM-TIP!

Gumbi laughed. “You’re getting ahead of yourselves. Everybody wants to run before they can walk. Good. Don’t f[..]k it up!”

“Look, we’re waiting for the boom boom!” we said. “Where’s the boom boom?”

“There’s no boom boom yet. Wait for the boom boom! Go—palm tip, slap tip, palm tip. Good. Keep doing that.”

We got into time: palm tip, slap tip, palm tip. Then we got there: BOOM BOOM.

Palm tip, slap tip, palm tip, BOOM BOOM.  Palm tip, slap tip, palm tip BOOM BOOM.

“Keep going,” Gumbi said, getting up from his conga and moving to the piano. “Keep going with the boom boom. Don’t mess it up,” he warned, a grin on his face, like he knew we were going to mess it up. But—he didn’t care because we were playing together, and that’s all that matters. We were palm tipping and boom booming, smiling like fools, when he pounded a handful of Cuban piano riffs and suddenly, in some parallel universe of supreme awesomeness, we were jamming with Gumbi Ortiz.

Listen to a clip from our jam session here:

 

II. One Question, One Hour

Most people know Gumbi as the superstar percussionist in jazz-rock guitar hero Al Di Meola’s band, where he’s been on the roster for 30-plus years. Born in the South Bronx in the 1950’s to Caribbean parents, Gumbi relocated to this part of Florida in 1979 with his family. He settled in St. Petersburg, where he’s been ever since, though he travels 250,000 miles a year touring and working on the kinds of cool projects that rich and famous musicians get to work on. (Stay tuned for his upcoming travel-food show with former student DJ Ravidrums.)

Now in his 60’s, Ortiz remains a kid from the Bronx—rough-hewn, street smart, scarred and with a terrific sense of humor—but able to swing in and out of different accents, dialects and histories with the ease of a completely politically incorrect person enculturated to the world. He’s a consummate storyteller, a sublimely entertaining mix of profane Bronx prophet, stand-up comic, armchair historian and African griot.

guiro

This beaded gourd sitting next to Gumbi’s computer is called a “shekere” (African, pronounced shake-a-ray) or a “guiro” (Cuban).

Gumbi is, in a strictly Cuban sense, a rumbero, Cuban-Spanish for a percussionist or dancer although the connotation is much deeper, much more indicative of someone carrying the spiritual and historical mantle of the complicated, contradictory nature of black and brown people in the Caribbean. To be a rumbero is to be a master of rhythm yet also its vehicle, to embody the identity of the violent, incendiary, other-worldly, beautiful amalgam of the colonial collision that created Afro-Caribbean culture—and to speak the language of God.

He learned to drum as a child for Lucumi sacred ceremonies in the South Bronx, so we started with what we thought was a simple question: why don’t we see Afro-Cuban sacred culture in Tampa as visible as it is in L.A. or New York?

Except, if you know anything about Afro-Cuban sacred culture, Santeria or Lucumi, both drum-and-dance African ancient spiritual systems grossly misrepresented by Hollywood, you know it is never a simple question.

“I eat rice and beans, and I play my drums,” Gumbi said, settling onto a stool by his iPad Pro and miniature electric grand piano. Dim lamps lit his studio, a cramped room stuffed full of drums, guitars, music stands, headphones, chairs and endless snakes of cables and cords.

gumbi at ipad

“I stick to myself and that’s all I do. I’m my own little sphere of information: my parents, Africa, Cuba, Europe, Spain, all that lives in me. I am self-contained culture. I’ve been all over the world a million times. I love it all. Look, I never wanted to be an ambassador of something. I’m not that. I’m representing survival, you know what I mean? I’m the guy who survived.” He pulled up his jeans to reveal the gunshot scar on his kneecap.

“Who shot you?” we asked.

“Who cares? Look, I got cut in the throat, here.” He showed the pale line across his neck. “So, everything I do needs to be real. You don’t think and play the way I do if you don’t go through that. Falling on the floor and getting up again is what makes you strong.”

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A peek around Gumbi’s studio.

Above all, Gumbi is Gumbi: rollicking, high energy, high volume, crackling with an intoxicating life force unique to people who trade in vibrations. Interviewing him feels like popping amphetamines before jumping on a runaway train. He gesticulates, circumnavigates, re-enacts stories while voicing different characters, exclaims, whispers, stands up, sits down, and you don’t get a word in edge-wise. Just when you think I don’t even know what we’re talking about anymore, he brings it back to the point.

Then, you realize you were never lost in the conversation, you were just taking the long way ‘round:

“Look,” he said. “Us, this new experiment, America, we are trying to get it right but it’s not right. We think we got it right, but we don’t. It started off on the wrong foot, that’s why we’re here. I’m a product of the wrong foot. Spanish conquistadors, slavery, Columbus, the lost remnants of the Roman empire, Queen Isabella . . . you have to know this history. The Europeans, why did they have to look for a new way to get to India? So what happens, Mehmed the Conqueror has this country called Turkey. Everybody goes through the Bosphorus. Marco Polo, everybody. So, Constantine blah blah blah, Constantinople, says “This is a Christian city!,” and Mehmed is like “No! We’re a Muslim city.” Years ago! He takes it, closed that shit off. Now nobody can get from Europe to Asia. . . .  Queen Isabella said “hey, I need somebody to find the new route,” so the story goes. She finds Cristobal Colon, that’s what we call him, who says we can get there, but we have to go this way, whatever. He gets there, he thinks he’s in India, he doesn’t even know where the hell he’s at. But, the people were pretty, the food was lush, hence the holocaust that ensued.  In no time, by the beginning of 1500’s, there were already millions of Africans in the Caribbean. Forget about America. That wasn’t thought of, it was still nothing. We [Afro-Caribbeans] were the experiment! We were the mulatto culture, the mixed culture, we invented that Africa and Europe mix! So, you know, out of that mix comes this music and this culture, because the mix didn’t work [in the USA]. It hasn’t worked here, and it’s never going to work here in America. You know why? When you get the mix of English Europeans and Africans, it don’t work good. It’s like you put a bulldog with another kind of dog, it comes out like this.”

Gumbi distorted his face and contorted his arms.

“It works to make human beings, but it doesn’t work culturally. Cold [climate] people don’t understand hot [climate] people. It’s a different mentality. The Saxons are like “make something of yourself!” But it’s like “what if I want to be a stump? Who cares?” This is the problem we have now. The English at the time had Manifest Destiny, said that the Bible and Jesus said that the new world was made for England and the English way. Everything else was wrong. Slavery was a part of that Manifest Destiny. They were like [to black people], “hey hey hey hey hey, if it wasn’t for us, you’d still be eating zebra! So, come on, give me a hug!” That’s what they say: We taught you how to read, how to write, what more do you want from us?”

Gumbi inched his stool closer. “We’re too scared to say it doesn’t work because to say Manifest Destiny didn’t work is to say Manifest Destiny was a lie, that the whole thing we believe [as Americans] isn’t true. To admit that is to admit human frailty. That’s rough. So what we have in Cuban culture, we learn to live with our contradictions. When we play our drums in the santero ceremony, the deity will come down, and you channel that energy. It could be male or female, so in the 40’s and 50’s, people said it was a gay religion. People said that! Chango [deity of justice, drums and thunder] comes down sometimes as a man, sometimes as a woman. Half tribal, half Muslim. Used to be a man, now singing as a woman. Hello, contradictions! We live it. Here you have to be uniform, these American absolutes. Right/wrong. That’s what gets people clamoring for real freedom: I get they’re screaming for cultural freedom, not money. That’s why [Afro-Cuban sacred culture] is not seen. It doesn’t want to be, right? Americans are hung up on good, bad, evil . . . but there’s a vague line about that. It’s deep! This isn’t a jam session on Treasure Island. It’s Africa. What we’re doing is trying to understand nature and show respect to nature at the same time. Life gives life,” he said. “Life gives life. Ancient people, primitive people do things differently. When you’re making your inya or baba [becoming a priestess or high priest], you have to go to Nigeria. Tell Americans about going to Nigeria! They have this weird concept of Africa or anything African. Forget about black—Pakistanis are black. This is AFRICA. So, it’s complicated. You have to trust people to understand it [the religion] and not go crazy, you understand?”

Yes. We got there, the long way ‘round. “So, how does that come out when you play?” we asked.

“It doesn’t. It’s just who I am.” Gumbi jumped up and sat at one of the four congas in his set. “So what happens is, when I sit down,” he pattered out a set of beats, “I feel every African that died come right through my hand. You have to live this [culture] or you’re never gonna get it. Learn to live with the contradiction of it all. We had to survive. It’s a culture of survival, we had to make friends with the culture of our captivity from 400 years ago, and something beautiful happened from something ugly.”

 

III.  Gumbisms

Gumbi represents survival, the mix of cultures that created the extraordinary rhythms of music and dance that melted together on the Caribbean islands into a new, distinct, spiritual and powerful culture. This colonial alchemy, in Gumbi’s philosophy, provides a rather large lens into the social history of race relations and humanity. The profit of learning to live with contradictions, he told us time and again, is important now, in this terrible year for racial violence in America.

“I tell my Black American friends, you were born tribal, they made you believe in Jesus, kicked your ass, not one hundred years later, you’re in church like ‘Oh, Jesus! Lord!’ This is what I love about Santeria. We give it the face, the stories, that come from the jungle. But that’s so we can understand something we don’t understand. That’s all it is,” he said. “I think the Bible is the same way, but here they take it literally. That’s a problem. In America, [immigrants] can pretend to forget who they are. But Black people can’t do that. You know why? Because they’re black. Their skin color don’t let them. ‘Hi, I’m American!.’ ‘No, you’re black FIRST. That means you were a slave.’ They put you down three notches so you can’t stay equal-equal. People say to me ‘why are you always talking about that skin color, you could pass for kinda white.’ I say, ‘No, I can’t.’ It’s a funny thing. A sad thing. But we live with that contradiction. Black people came with all the advantages spiritually. But they lose the advantages with money and education. They start not feeling useful. I’m saddened by what I see in the world, but I get it. People have to get mad. These things [interpersonal violence] don’t happen in a vacuum.”

drum set

Drum set in Gumbi’s studio.

Gumbi’s name, bestowed on him by Harvey, a classmate at Nokomis Elementary, happened after the family moved from the South Bronx to Long Island, when Gumbi’s dad was relocated for his job building O-rings for the Apollo space crafts. (“We didn’t come here to be stupid. In 1969, we watched the lunar landing and were so happy because we knew my dad’s O-rings were somewhere on that rocket.”) Gumbi’s birth name, Gamaliel, proved too difficult to pronounce for his new neighborhood, and Harvey christened him “Gumby! Like the cartoon character!”

“But, when I came home, and my friends would call me up, my mom would be like ‘Goombi? Who the hell is Goombi?’ She couldn’t make the face you have to make to say Gumby. So, I became Gumbi [pronounced GOOM-bee]. Gumbi is a cultural translation.”

Much like the man himself.  He became one of the first Cuban musicians to incorporate Black gospel riffs into Cuban music (“This collision of African cultures! Even though I didn’t believe in the dogma, I loved the energy of the church. I couldn’t go to a black church without crying!”) which he demonstrated on his electric baby grand piano, marching out an exquisite blend of Sunday-revival chord progressions and salsa beats.

“There’s this one thing, this driving thing,” he told us, musing about common spiritual threads across the church, Moroccan gnawa music, Indian mystical chants and James Brown. “It’s all . . . this thing like your heart. This one note everybody is looking for. Once you find it you’ll live forever because you’ve found the vibration that works. Even if you die tomorrow. You heart does this thing with melody, plays this rhythm, and when you focus on it, you either love it or you get scared of it! This is a reminder that you’re alive. This consciousness is a beautiful thing. We have a sense of who we are with that note.”

conga drums_close up

Conga drums in Gumbi’s studio.

 

IV: The Lesson, Part 2

In three hours with Gumbi, we’d learned the secret of Cuban culture (“it’s about erect penises”), the location of santero ceremonies in Tampa (“all over, but it’s really Afro-Cuban, and it’s going to stay that way, you know what I mean”), his own personal secret (“I’m speaking as a fortunate man, so I may be a little full of shit”), the secret to making it in America (“I created my own life, but I’m never gonna tell you that bootstrap shit. I got here by standing on the shoulders of the people before me. So, you gotta find your own shoulders to stand on—and don’t forget you’re standing on them. And don’t hurt them when you’re standing on them!”), and the real reason why people don’t like Donald Trump (“he hasn’t lived through shit”) and his nickname for Al Di Meola (“The Queen of England”).

Oh, and we also learned the secret of the universe:

Life gives life. BOOM BOOM.

Treasure Hunt: The 20-Year Search for the Lost Lines of Tampa’s Cuban Playwrights

Show @ Círculo Cubano copy 2

Show at Circulo Cubano.

In the early 1990’s, a young professor in the Department of Modern Languages at Carnegie Mellon University happened to join a walking tour of Ybor City with renowned local history experts, Dr. Gary Mormino and E.J. Salcines, during a small gathering of peers at the University of South Florida.

The tour concluded in the ornate theater at Centro Asturiano, one of the many Ybor City social clubs and mutual aid societies, a relic of the turn-of-the-century heyday of Ybor as a cigar boomtown. As Dr. Mormino launched into his explanation of the Spanish history of the club, E.J. Salcines leaned to the ear of the young professor.

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Joyce Baby Cermeño and Emiliano El Chaval Salcines.

“I grew up in this theater,” he whispered, voice full of nostalgia and mischief. “This was our life.” Under the script of the formal lecture, E.J. Salcines, sotto voce, wove an enchanting picture of growing up in the rich culture of Ybor City, an anomaly in the American South—a thriving, interdependent, multi-immigrant society devoid of racial violence despite the ethic discrimination of the times. He shared colorful anecdotes of music and theater, of seeing Placido Domingo’s parents perform on the very stage of Centro Asturiano.

The young professor, Dr. Kenya Dworkin, whose dissertation concerned the Cuban identity between colonial rule to the first republic, fell under the spell.

“The idea that the Cubans here were continuing the tradition of Cuban-style theater from the island, adapting it and presenting it to the local community fascinated me,” says Dworkin. “But I knew nothing about it.”

CastofItCan'tHappenHereRehearsal copy (1937)

Cast of It Can’t Happen Here rehearsing in 1937.

She returned to Pittsburgh with a new intellectual curiosity on fire: given the importance the Ybor City cigar workers played in Cuban independence, what about Cuban theater of Tampa? The cigar workers organized that, too. What were the plays like? Who was writing them? What did they say about the people, the times?

She needed artifacts, evidence.

Surely, somewhere, someone had a stockpile of manuscripts from this creative outpouring of Cubans in Tampa.

She searched. She found nothing.

Then, Dworkin stumbled upon one other scholar—just one, out of the entire United States—who cared enough to peep into the cultural history of Ybor City, one of the most fascinating social experiments of the American 19th century.

Dr. Nicolás Kanellos, Brown Foundation Professor for Hispanic Studies at the University of Houston, was directing a major national research project: Recovering the U.S. Hispanic Heritage of the United States. He had one reference in his book.

Martí-Maceo Theater Circular 1940 copy

Martí-Maceo Theater circular, 1940.

Dworkin eventually learned through E.J. Salcines that the New Deal Works Project Administration funded one Spanish-speaking theater company through the Federal Theater Project, and that company came from Cubans and Spaniards in Tampa/Ybor City and performed at Centro Asturiano.

“Then I discovered from looking into this group that at the Library of Congress there was a small collection called the Fernando Mesa Collection. In the Mesa collection, I found several photographs and paraphernalia. Mesa was a Tampa native and very involved. He had a collection, so I thought he was dead,” says Dworkin.

Manuel Aparicio copy

The Centro Asturiano made history in 1936 when the WPA Federal Theater Project opened to the public under Manuel Aparicio, noted actor and director.

On summer break from the university, Dworkin traveled to Tampa on the trail of the missing manuscripts and in search of anyone who could fill in the gaping holes on the subject. She remembered visiting the offices of La Gaceta, the oldest family-owned, minority-owned newspaper in the country, on her tour with Gary Mormino, so she stopped in. Unannounced.

“The editor ended up being very charming, but at the time he gave me that ‘go away little girl, you’re bothering me’ attitude. Put his feet up on the desk. I thought, oh my gosh, this isn’t going to go anywhere,” says Dworkin. “Then I mentioned I was in Washington at the Fernando Mesa collection. All the sudden his eyes opened, he put his feet down, and calls out to his secretary, says ‘Call Fernando Mesa, someone wants to talk to him.’ So—to my shock—Fernando Mesa was alive.”

Dworkin’s sincere fascination on the subject of their plays and theater works led Mesa and Salcines to trust her enough to let her into the real world of Tampa’s Cubans. She was allowed into the men-only cantina at Centro Asturiano to hear the tales of Ybor’s golden age of cigar workers and their social contributions as actors, singers, dancer and playwrights.

Salvador Toledo & Chela Martínez 1948_1_1 copy

She found herself the lone female in the Saturday Cuban/Spanish coffee klatch and the Sunday Sicilian coffee klatch. “I was one of the boys,” she says, “and in time they would say anything in front of me.” Eventually, she met the wiliest rooster of them all, the local legend Salvador Toledo, who was the most prolific of all the Ybor cigar worker playwrights and a great comic actor. After coming around for years and immersing herself in the community, Dworkin found herself with a proposition to become a permanent part of the family. Toledo, at 88 years old and a widower, offered her a marriage proposal, which she respectfully declined.

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Salvador Toledo and his fumas.

“I felt more at home there [in Tampa] than anywhere on earth except maybe New York. I fell in love with the people who were resilient. Inspirational. By the time I started hanging out at the cantina, I was already obsessed. I was truly fascinated by their stories, and no one had paid attention to them except Nicolás.”

From 1995-2008, Dworkin gathered evidence. She collected hours and hours of video and audio interviews, photos, whatever she could get her hands on. In an unmarked folder at USF, Dworkin finally discovered what she’d been after: manuscripts of the plays. Despite what she knew after the hours of interviews—that there had to have been hundreds and hundreds of plays—the folder contained a mere seven scripts. “It was a disappointing yield,” she says.

Familia Tinguillo1947 copy

A page from the script of Familia Tinguillo, 1947.

During the years, Dworkin found other plays tucked away in suitcases or stashed as afterthoughts in homes in West Tampa and Ybor. Her book took shape, the names of people and their creative contributions to the soul of their American life inked into the pages of history.  But where were the rest of the manuscripts?

Dworkin’s big break came when word arrived that a trove of artifacts from the Cubans was in the Circulo Cubano, the Cubans’ mutual aid society and social club. But before she could mine the archives, another scholar intercepted the works, retained them at his house and withheld access to certain people working on Cuban identity—especially in regards to race and class. Dworkin and her book, stymied by professional rivalries, sat idle for 10 long years.

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The audience at a show in the Circulo Cubano (Cuban Club), 1942.

Patience proved her virtue. The professor eventually bequeathed the stash of Cuban cultural artifacts to USF’s Special Collections. Finally, Dworkin was able to see what he’d been hiding. “I found out he’d turned in the theater material to USF,” she says. “I was in Tampa last August and September [2015], and that’s when I found the major stash. But, I’ve been unable to finish my book for 20 years.”

Dworkin found 47 physical plays in the USF stash which she says “is very incomplete” due to the appearance of a register book listing an additional 81 plays by Tampa Cuban playwrights. The sheer volume of their work—mostly slapstick comedies mixed with social commentary, explorations of their new American identities, racism and their perspectives of salient issues like the atomic bomb and the plight of black Cubans in Havana—speaks to the surfeit of Cuban creativity in Tampa and the cultural need to express and share in their artistic talents.

“At the time, there was no art person to archive what they were doing. They didn’t see the value the way I do, looking from a historical perspective. The plays were lowbrow, farce . . . something ‘the workers’ did. The performances were ephemeral, many scripts were handwritten. Making plays was part of their everyday life. Little did they know how valuable it would be later,” she says.

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First pages of the script of Un blackout en Ybor City.

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First pages of the script of Un blackout en Ybor City.

 

But the value, in time, rose to the surface. Years ago, Dworkin came to Tampa to give an intimate talk at USF about her research, to read letters penned by Tampa Cuban and Spanish actors to Roosevelt to not disband the Federal Theater Project. She pulled her favorite letter from the bunch and read it. From the silent crowd, a man stood and said, “That was me. I wrote that letter.”

“I have to honor their memory,” Dworkin says. “What they did here is a tremendous value as a window into a community. They lived a curriculum of culture, supported all the other social clubs and their art. They want to be acknowledged for what they did and for the value of the role of theater in this community.”

Dr. Dworkin’s book, tentatively titled Before Latino: How Cuban Theater in Tampa Shaped an American Immigrant Society, will be the first of its kind to document the excitement and value of the performing arts to our Cuban community of Ybor City.

Kenya C. Dworkin

Dr. Kenya Dworkin

 

If you have artifacts to share with her—programs, photos, manuscripts, anything—or if you are interested in having her tell more stories of her adventures with the colorful characters of Ybor City with your group or organization, please contact Dr. Dworkin at kdworkin@andrew.cmu.edu.

 

But What About All That Blockbuster Broadway Money?

Raising funds for a not-for-profit as large and ambitious as the Straz Center creates some interesting challenges for the people who run our development department. In this exclusive profile in honor of Give Day Tampa Bay and The Straz spring membership drive, Caught in the Act introduces you to some of the delightful people who build and maintain our vital donor community. Here, they wax philosophical on the number one challenge and why we need a donor community anyway.

Want to be a part of The Straz? We want you.

The biggest challenge:

“Believe it or not, most people don’t understand we’re a not-for-profit,” says Director of Special Events Sharon McDonald, who heads up Best of Tampa Bay, the food and drink fundraising festival on the Riverwalk each year. “My son’s girlfriend asked me if we did Best of Tampa Bay for charity, and I said, ‘yes—us!’ She paused for a moment then said, ‘The Straz is a charity?’ Oh, yes. When people think charity, they tend to think of shelters or cancer, these types of things. Not performing arts. But, the performing arts aren’t sustainable by just coming to see a show. With the big Broadway blockbusters, 70 cents of every dollar goes back to the show. People think we make all this money when we have The Lion King or Wicked, but we don’t. The majority of profits go to the show. We have to raise money for everything—education, outreach, our programming, everything.”

Sharon serves dual roles as Straz Center Director of Special Events and rabid Bolts fan.

Sharon (pictured with her husband, Jimmy) serves dual roles as Straz Center Director of Special Events and rabid Bolts fan.

“The most difficult challenge is having people see we’re a nonprofit. People don’t know what it really takes to bring high-quality arts and artists here. Not only that, but donors are vital to keeping our stages lit. Lights on, water running … that’s not the sexiest thing to give money for, but where would we be without it?” says Kim Bateman, manager of member relations and development systems. “Donors keep arts in this community.”

Kim Bateman

Here’s a pre-event selfie of Kim Bateman, glammed up to help donors have a spectacular time at the Straz Center Broadway Ball 2015.

“If we have grants and tickets, why donate? That’s a great question,” says staff grant writer Maggie DiPietra. “Well, we’ve got to raise about seven million dollars a year to break even. Seven million dollars to break even. We are very good, conscientious stewards of what we’re given, but people don’t realize we’re a nonprofit. The Straz Center started as a dream of the community; donors keep the dream alive. That’s what donors bring to the table. We simply can’t do it without them.”

Maggie Dipietra

Maggie is a favorite Tampa musician. Here she plays at Skipper’s Smokehouse with her husband Danny (on bucket) to open for Paul Thorn. Photo by Bridge Burke.

 Philanthropy and The Straz. Why do it?

“Because it makes you feel good. I really believe that. The world can’t survive without those who are generous and can give back. All the work we do at The Straz brings joy to others and is—authentically—an uplifting experience,” says Vice President of Development Julie Britton. “For me, I also think people don’t understand our work creates memories that last forever. What we teach here gives you discipline and skill sets that last your whole lifetime. I took free music appreciation classes at the museum in Toledo growing up. That was possible because of philanthropy, and that experience shaped who I am as a person. Having experiences in the performing arts makes for richer human beings as people learn to appreciate intangible things like beauty and goodness. Performances and classes, spending time at The Straz, creates a break in a frenzied world, adding a rich and rewarding dimension to life that is unique to the performing arts. Philanthropy for The Straz funnels right into our ability to create these experiences.”

Julie Britton with her husband Charlie at Best of Tampa Bay 2016.

Julie Britton with her husband Charlie at Best of Tampa Bay 2016.

“In the big picture, the Straz Center feeds the economic success and growth of all Tampa Bay,” says Bill Rolon, who helps cultivate our relationships with area businesses as our corporate relations manager. “It’s a ripple effect starting here for students taking theater classes, summer camps, dance intensives, any of the arts education programs. When people support arts training, most of the time they don’t even think about the fact that those kids are learning focus, team leading, collaboration, discipline and perseverance. You can’t put on a show without going through the long, hard, challenging process of getting it up and running, and, if you want to do it, you don’t quit. It’s all those life skills that the performing arts teach. I’m a prime example. I was an artist for 15 years, and that part of my life gave me every single skill that makes me valuable to a company today. Our students have the same training for life whether they go into a career in the performing arts or not, but the end result is that they have a work ethic to go until the job is done. And an understanding of how much they can achieve and what can be achieved when people work hard to a common goal. We don’t just teach performing arts, but character. Those students will become future employees, future business owners, future leaders. So the value of The Straz goes on and on.”

Bill performs in a musical revue as part of the Minnesota Fringe Festival.

Bill performs in a musical revue as part of the Minnesota Fringe Festival.

Nicole Stickeler, our bi-lingual development coordinator, explains:

“Las artes escénicas traen cultura y proveen una  vía para que los estudiantes y adultos  puedan expresar y entretener su lado artístico,” ella dice. “Al asistir a un evento las personas crean recuerdos que pueden conducir a un vínculo emocional con un lugar como el Straz. A través del apoyo de la comunidad, podemos ofrecer obras de alta calidad, educación gratuita de las artes, extensión a la comunidad, y mucho más. El apoyo del público es una parte integral de nuestro éxito y es necesario para que todos los clientes, estudiantes y adultos por igual, puedan soñar, llegar a, y celebrar las artes.”

In other words:

“The performing arts bring culture and provide an outlet  for students and adults to express and entertain their artistic side,” she says. “Patrons come here to attend an event and they create memories which can lead to an emotional attachment to a place like The Straz. Through the support of the community, we are able to provide high quality performances, tuition-free arts education, community outreach, and so much more. Their support is an integral part of our success and is needed so that all patrons, students and adults alike, can dream, reach, and celebrate the arts.”

Nicole, a trained singer, performs sometimes with Opera Tampa. Here she appears as a gypsy from La Traviata.

Nicole, a trained singer, performs sometimes with Opera Tampa. Here she appears as a gypsy from La Traviata.

If you’re interested in making a difference for the lives of the next generation and having the unique experience of being a part of our donor community, please visit us.

STOP. SIT. PLAY!

The Straz Center @ the Riverwalk offers a medley of interactive objects encouraging everybody to stop by and play with us.

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Detail shot of Why Sit When You Can Play? musical bench created by The Urban Conga. Photo by Rob/Harris, Inc.

For 27-year-old architect Ryan Swanson, the moment of clarity came when he stood alongside his pop-up public art installment that included a 12-foot beach ball in downtown Tampa. A homeless man approached Ryan and his business partners for money.

“I said, ‘man, we don’t have any money, but you can play with our stuff.’ At the time, I was working for a firm, we’d all just graduated from the University of South Florida architecture school, and were doing these pop-up installations in our spare time because we were poor, trying to transform underutilized public spaces. We took the guy over to the beach ball, introduced him to the family who was playing with it, a middle-class family. Everybody was skeptical at first, then we left them to it. Next time I looked over, they were all like little kids, batting the ball to each other. I saw it: play breaks down barriers. It was just … people playing. I said to myself, I’ve got to designate more time for this.”

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Ryan Swanson, of The Urban Conga, demonstrating how to play the musical bench.

Ryan quit his job and The Urban Conga, a creative collective determined to transform static public spaces into interactive play places, was born. The vision, started as Ryan’s graduate thesis at USF, resurrects the idea of public space as a locus for human interaction. People can participate in something cool together, as a community, the way we used to in the good old days before screen devices became our primary social partners. “It’s been a hurdle to convince the old guard around town that building a park in and of itself isn’t going to draw people to it. Look at Curtis Hixon Park, for example. It’s beautiful. But people really only go there when there’s an event, some draw. It’s hard for the older generation to understand we live and experience in a completely different way now, though they’re seeing our stuff work. As with our ping pong tables at Gaslight Park. People looked at them like they were alien spaceships, now people are bringing their own paddles out at lunch. So, it’s getting somewhat easier for people to understand the importance of our designs, of our philosophies and ideas that play works to bring people together, to make a conversation happen.”

Last year, Straz Center Director of Programming Chrissy Hall approached The Urban Conga about activating some space around the Straz Center. “We have this wonderful location on the Riverwalk, we’re here for our community, and we want to be a destination where people come hang out, even if they’re not coming to see a show,” she said. “The Urban Conga has the right thinking we need to help make The Straz a place where people participate in our campus – a place where they can play and enjoy themselves.”

 

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Kids playing the musical bench at our Open House event.

After hours designing, welding, carving and revising, The Urban Conga installed Why Sit When You Can Play?, a bright-blue xylophone bench on the Riverwalk. Six steel segments comprise the 1.5 ton structure, a permanent installation, although the multi-colored sound blocks are made of hardwood maple and loosely affixed to give the blocks reverb to transmit sound. Anyone can sit and enjoy the bench. Or, pick up a mallet and give it a whack.

“We were so excited The Straz was open to us and our ideas for the musical bench. It’s a great feeling to come down here and see people playing it, or sitting together and talking while strangers walk up and start hitting it. It’s about musical collaboration, conversation … but all our work is a constant experiment to see how people engage,” said Ryan.

The success of Why Sit When You Can Play? prompted Chrissy to invite The Urban Conga, a trio that includes Mark Perrett and Brennen Huller as well as Ryan, to construct The Cube, an interactive, community graffiti-art project that happened at The Straz this winter.

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Local artist Angel Corela was the first to paint The Cube on January 20, 2016.

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After being up for only one day, our community had already left their mark on The Cube!

The Cube was fantastic,” Chrissy says. “We are in such an exciting time of change for The Straz as we make these huge efforts to offer easy ways for the public to feel a sense of pride and ownership in their performing arts center. We’re seeing the mission of the Straz Center in action, responding to social evolution. The role we’ll take in the future of this community is shaping itself before our eyes.”

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Local artist Cory Robinson paints another layer on The Cube on February 18, 2016.

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The Cube has moved to different locations around our campus. Here it is in the courtyard outside of the Jaeb Theater on April 16, 2016.

The next interactive exhibit hits the Riverwalk at The Straz April 30 and May 1 when Australia’s kid-centric imaginarium-makers Polyglot Theatre stage We Built This City, a free, family-friendly event featuring thousands of cardboard boxes that can be used to build any sort of cityscape participants desire.

With rocking music from an on-site DJ to fire the imagination and offer some creative hype, children of all ages can design, build, tear down, walk through and play in a city of their own making. The only rule is to have fun. Polyglot’s team will be in the mix guiding participants, acting as construction workers and hilarious characters and setting the tasks to bring people together.

 

More Hands-On and On-Site Fun

Fin Harp – Los Angeles-based performing art collective String Theory provided that dolphin-inspired Fin Harp that attaches to the roof of Morsani Hall. It was designed and built by Luke Rothschild. Read more about this permanent installation in this blog article.

Who We Are: Faces of Tampa Bay – French-American photographer Daniel Chauche spent two weeks in residency photographing portraits of the Tampa Bay area community from all walks of life. The photographs are on display through May 2016 along the Tampa Riverwalk. Read more about this free, outdoor exhibit on our website.

 

Somos Todos Tampeños

The Tampa-Cuba cultural connection

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Floridano Sexteto. Photo courtesy of Dr. Susan Greenbaum.

There was a time not so long ago when Tampa belonged, in heart and mind, to Cuba. In late 19th century Ybor City and West Tampa, Cuban immigrants recreated  their homeland, to the best of their ability, while they powered the burgeoning cigar-making industry. Cuban-flavored Spanish rippled through the factories as the lectors, whose only job was to read to the cigar workers, sat on their platforms and performed the day’s text: newspapers and literary prose, often with revolutionary tones. Afro-Cubans, who contributed the indelible mark of African percussion to the Cuban sound and inspired the creation of the national music, son, and the development of rumba rhythms and dances, labored with their compatriots to establish the first real wealth in this area — economically and cross-culturally.

2016 marks more than 500 years of relationship between Tampa and Cuba, starting with the Spanish colonial appropriation of both Florida and Cuba in the 1500s. The two purloined lands shared a Spanish governor, Hernando de Soto, whose name became something of a Florida brand for parks and counties. In the early 1800s, a thriving settlement of Cuban fishermen lived on the shores of what is now Bayshore Boulevard. Years later, when Vincente Martinez Ybor and others built the lucrative cigar industries in Ybor City (originally “Cuba Town”) and West Tampa (originally “Cuba City”), donations from their workers funded the legendary Cuban fight for independence from Spain headed by José Marti and Antonio Maceo. Marti, beloved poet, patriot, revolutionary and orator, spent much time in Ybor stoking the fires for independence and equality. “Somos todos Cubanos,” he would say, walking with his trusted friend and lauded activist Paulina Pedroso down the streets of Ybor. We are all Cubans; his motto for the right attitude necessary for Cuban unity. This historical foundation so inextricably tied Tampa and Cuba that Pedroso Park on 8th Avenue in Ybor City is still owned by the Cuban government, who purchased the land because of its historic significance prior to the U.S. and Cuban governments’ fall-out in 1959.

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Tampa’s Cesar Gonzmart, a talented violinist, performed with famed Cuban composer and pianist Ernesto Lecuona.

“For much of Tampa’s history, Cuba was the dominant partner,” says USF Professor Emeritus of History and author of The Immigrant World of Ybor City, Dr. Gary Mormino.

In Tampa, we possess the legacy of not only being the seat of Cuban independence, but also as a seat of trans-culturation that happened in the formation of Tampa as an American city.

“The sheer amount of creativity coming out of the social clubs was astounding,” Mormino says. The clubs, structured mutual aid societies that included health care and social opportunities, included ballrooms and theaters. Long before The Straz, plays, concerts and select performances of opera singers took place in the Cuban clubs — as well as in their Spanish, Italian and German counterparts.

In fact, Tampa’s first theatrical venue was a wooden cigar factory Martinez Ybor gave to his workers who repurposed it as El Liceo Cubano, a theater for arts, politics, education and cultural activities. El Liceo mounted the very first theatrical performance of any kind in Tampa — a performance of Amor de Madre in 1887.

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A performance at the Cuban Club. Photo courtesy of USF Special Collections.

Many cigar makers moonlighted as playwrights, actors and directors. Regular Spanish-language plays ran at La Sociedad La Union Marti-Maceo as well, many of them socially-conscious works including a production of Hambre (Hunger), an attack on ruling class exploitation of poor people. In the Depression Era, Tampa-Cuban actress Chela Martinez opened a theater company featuring well-known actresses Carmen and Pilar Ramirez, and many of our Cuban thespians joined Tampa Federal Theatre Project, the only Spanish-language theater to come out of the New Deal.

Cuban music and dance, a complex cuisine of multi-cultural influences, was dished out in the streets and social clubs of Ybor City and West Tampa. The most potent flavors — son, danzon, bolero, rumba, cha cha cha and the lesser-known sacred Afro-Cuban Santeria songs and rhythms — traveled from the island to Tampa. Cigar maker Ramon Padron played part time with Floridano Sexteto, one of the most popular local Cuban ensembles, and famed Cuban composer Ernesto Lecuona (who wrote “Melaguena”) often spent time in Ybor City. The clubs hosted regular gatherings of local and touring Cuban artists, filling Tampa with the incomparable spirit of Cuban culture.

Now, as the political fetters fall away, we are in a unique position to rejoin the beloved island that gave us so much music, dance and theater. Cuba helped shape us culturally as an extension of its vibrant sound and exuberant energy, bringing to Tampa its exquisite artistry and giving birth to our identity in America.

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The Habana Compás Dance company was founded in 2004 under the direction of dancer and choreographer Liliet Rivera.

Habana Compás Dance

We celebrate the Tampa-Cuba connection with the American debut of Habana Compás Dance on April 22 in Ferguson Hall. Direct from Havana, this electrifying company showcases the new artistry emerging in Cuba, a mix of tradition and vision that exalts the rhythmic complexities of the culture.

 

Many thanks to Dr. Susan Greenbaum, professor emerita of anthropology, University of South Florida, and author of More than Black: Afro-Cubans in Tampa, for photos and her insightful contributions to this article.

It Takes a Village to Raise an Audience

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Early childhood research reveals the critical developmental need for youngsters to participate in the arts, and many performing arts schools ensure there will be a future generation of outstanding American artists. What we sometimes forget to talk about is who, if anyone, will be in the theater seats when this next generation takes the stage. In other words, the best way to secure an audience for the performing arts is to make sure we’re raising one.

The advent of movies and television radically changed the role of live performance in American culture. The rapid developments in screen technology that paved the way for inexpensive, easy and amateur entertainment set the performing arts on a rapid parallel  evolution competing for audiences in the digital age. In the past 40 years, critics and social theorists have questioned whether or not the performing arts will be able to sustain patronage as the generations become more acculturated to screen entertainment at home and less likely to spend the money on tickets to a live show.

Most patrons of the arts can pinpoint a specific childhood influence that instilled their love of the arts — whether it was a grandparent who listened to opera,  a mother who loved musicals or a school trip to see a regional production of Annie or Romeo and Juliet. Because theater activates a multi-sensory imaginative experience, children make wonderful audiences who may have a formative moment with the performing arts that will last a lifetime.

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As trends in public education continue to edge out creative arts in favor of STEM benchmarks, the need for community support to bring young people to the performing arts grows. Most shows, for kids and adults, offer specially discounted student tickets, which is a wonderful practice although many theaters suspect students do not know they have the option for more affordable seats. Schools, home school programs and  organizations benefit from group discounts. In general, at The Straz, group rates apply to any gathering of 10 or more people, so younger adult audiences who may be ineligible for student discounts may also have access to less expensive group rates if they can come with friends. The Straz Center’s field trip performance series is a special season of weekday performances for children throughout the school year. These performances usually take place at 10:30 a.m. in Ferguson Hall and are a perfect way to begin to build the foundation for a vivid imagination — and a lifelong patron of the performing arts.

The best way to instill a love for enjoying live performing arts is to start audiences young, raising them to appreciate the thrill and transformative experience one can find only in  the theater. Today’s patron of Wee Folk, Kid Time or field trip performances may be tomorrow’s patron of new works from the next generation of Tony®- winning playwrights.