As artists, we have to find the antidote to this darkness right now, to how everything feels so compressed rather than expanded.
“Not any one play is precious. You do the best you can in each situation as it comes to you. No writer is made of one play. If they are, they’re not very good writers.”
Eduardo Machado is a playwright in motion, the reflection of a life in motion. Born in Cuba, his family fled to Miami when he was seven, and then moved on to Los Angeles where they began their new life. Eduardo kept moving: beyond the conservatism of his upbringing, beyond the parochialism of a single culture, beyond the confines of a single form of theatrical expression. He is simultaneously writing plays for HBO and CBS, while two of his earlier plays, Stevie Wants to Play the Blues and Once Removed, are opening in Los Angeles and San Francisco this winter. Today, he is in a coffee shop on Amsterdam Avenue, and for a moment we talk not about where he is going, but where he has come from.
Stuart Spencer Are you a Cuban or an American? (pause) Let’s start with the tough ones.
Eduardo Machado I’m a Cuban-American. A couple years ago I would have said I was a Cuban, but I’ve begun to accept the fact that I haven’t been there in 30 years. It was really hard to accept that fact, but I have begun to accept it. I’m not Hispanic, because that term puts all Spanish people under the same ethnic group, and they’re all very different. It’s derogatory. I call it “his-panic”—you know, like “he-panicked”—the white man panicked. But I’m not an American, because I speak Spanish a lot of the time, and I don’t vote. I’m not an American citizen.
SS What is your status?
EM A resident, a legal resident. I have been for 30 years.
SS Why haven’t you become a citizen?
EM I never could. I mean, I’m actually thinking about doing it now. But I could never believe that I was living here. It took 30 years to realize that.
SS That you were not going back.
EM That I was not going back.
SS If something enormous changed in Cuba …
EM I wouldn’t want to live there now.
SS What’s the difference between Cubans and other Hispanics?
EM They’re more greedy. Very capitalistic. They’re more like Americans in their thinking. That’s why they’ve done so well here. And racially diverse—blacks, Chinese, you name it. It’s like a port town, Cuba. It always has been.
SS Tell me about the circumstances of your family’s leaving Cuba.
EM Under Communism they got all their businesses taken away from them, and they thought they better run.
SS How old were you?
EM I was seven. We went to Miami for a year. And then we went to Los Angeles because my father couldn’t find work in Miami.
SS Can you pinpoint the moment at which you realized that you were not going to go back?
EM Therapy. About a year ago. I just realized that I would never fit in there, that I fit much more into the New York theatrical community, that that’s who I am. But sometimes I really think I’m never going to live anywhere. I never move into some place and think, “Oh, this is my house”—I never have. Not since Cuba.
SS Your plays portray, to me, a decadent, self-indulgent Cuba in which the wealthy lead empty, miserable lives and the poor suffer in silent anger. Given this view, why such anger at what Castro has done? Didn’t he offer a solution to that?
EM No. I mean, at the moment he did offer a solution to that, but now he has turned into the same thing as Batista, only worse. There’s less freedom now than there was under Batista. You know, at least during Batista you could, if you had money, be shallow and decadent; now you can’t even do that. I just think that he didn’t keep his promise.
SS Which was?
EM To have a democratic country. Yeah, he turned on the people who put him into power almost immediately. He wanted Cuba to be his own playground, serfdom—and that’s what it is. I hated him when I was little ‘cause I got thrown out, and I didn’t know why. But as I got older—by the time I was writing the plays—I hated him because he didn’t keep his promise. Not because he kicked the United States out. I think that’s one of the smarter things he did, you know.
EM Because the United States used Cuba like it was a douche bag. (laughter) It was like Vegas. A place to go and gamble. It was run by Americans. Batista was completely into the American mob. It was the mob’s playland.
SS If Castro invited you down as, say, a visiting playwright, or if he asked you to …
EM He has invited me as a visiting playwright to the festival they have every year in December. No, I would never go.
SS Why not?
EM Because I would never let myself be used, by either side. If I went to Cuba, I’d go on my own. I don’t want them to tell me how the revolution worked, because I know it didn’t. And I don’t want the Cubans here to tell me how Batista worked, because I know it didn’t.
SS The “other side” that you’re referring to is the right-wing here in the U.S.
EM They’re the same coin but a different side. They want Cuba to be a place where I wouldn’t want to go to. Miami’s a place I haven’t been to since I was 19. The same kind of fascistic, repressive environment that I have no wish to be any part of. You can never go home again, but what the guy forgot to say was, you sometimes don’t want to go home again. (laughter) I’ve decided that I don’t want to ever go home again. I want to visit … but that’s different.
SS What kind of effects have the right-wing Cubans had on you?
EM Once they left a series of death threats on my answering machine. And when they did A Burning Beach at LATC, the theatre held a discussion afterwards. They said that I was a revisionist and a Communist. They wanted to know where I was, and I went and hid in the basement. They scare me. In Miami there was some of the most slanderous kind of press I’ve ever read—it was frightening. The right-wing told the actors in the company of Faviola that if they did the play there, they would picket. Now, I should say, that this might have been done by my own family; might have been. I could never quite figure it out. Anyway, I just don’t want to have anything to do with them. I’m not interested in them seeing my plays, either. What’s strange is that a lot of Cubans go to the plays in New York and they really like them. But there’s a different kind of Cuban in New York than there is in Miami.
SS More assimilated?
EM More liberal-minded. We went to Connecticut, to this little town where there is this Cuban club, to perform Broken Eggs. We went there because I wanted to have a pre-Miami test. In the first act, there was not one laugh; there was not one sound from those people. Then in the second act they started laughing. At the end they loved it, they made dinner for us. I asked the president of the club, because I thought he’d know what everybody was thinking. He said, “At first we were very insulted and mad that the characters were being portrayed this way. But by the end we all feel like she does, like a person who can never quite fit in. And we had to admit to ourselves that you were saying the truth.” Well, they’re a little bit ahead of the people in Miami who apparently said, in the discussions, that Cubans don’t want to go back to Cuba, and what’s wrong with me?
SS It sounds like it’s just as well your family left Miami.
EM My brother told me that he hates my father for a lot of things, but he’s grateful, to the day he dies, that he got us out of Miami. He told me that.
SS Sexuality and politics are inextricably linked in your work. Particularly homosexuality is often a key to understanding a character’s political rebellion.
EM Yeah … there’s always somebody in my plays who’s the outsider looking in. And when you don’t fit into the family structure, you’re the outsider. And the more fascistic a country is, the more that it wants to punish the outsider. So in a country as fascistic and as macho as Cuba was, homosexuals were those who had to be punished. And women also, who are one step above homosexuals.
SS It always interests me why an artist like yourself who is inspired by political concerns doesn’t ever consider running for political office. Have you ever thought about that?
SS Why not?
EM I don’t believe that that’s the way that you can make a difference in people’s lives. I think the media is the best way to reach people—to trick them.
SS Are you part of that manipulation with your plays?
EM Sure. The minute you write a play you’re part of the media, and you’re part of the manipulation. The minute you let your picture be in Time magazine as one of the “New Hispanics,” you’re a part of the whole hype. You take the hype, because it’s your only way in.
SS Is there something inherently wrong with that? Or is it only wrong depending on the ends?
EM It’s got nothing to do with art whatsoever, and you have to always keep that clear in your mind. And the more you deal with the mass media, which make theater seem clean and holy, the more you realize how little it has to do with expressing yourself, or any of the reasons why you started being in the arts anyway.
SS If it doesn’t have anything to do with art, what does it have to do with?
EM It has to do with money, yeah. But I will only go so far in portraying the kind of image they want of Latin people. And if they want to go past that point, I can’t go with them. I just won’t.
SS And do they want to?
EM Oh, they always do.
SS What does the media want?
EM To perceive Latin people as menial workers, with some sort of underground element. Not to see people as individuals, to always see people in terms of their racial group. That’s who you’re fighting all the time; that’s who you’re fighting in theater, as well. That was one of the things I appreciated about working at Ensemble Studio Theatre, the place that did my first plays. Ensemble was without prejudice. It was really a home, with all the problems that a home has, but I felt protected in the writing group that we had. I think all these writers came out of it, that has to be the reason. We did make a certain kind of commitment that I don’t find anywhere anymore. I couldn’t have done it without them. I would have gotten too scared. So it gave me a certain attitude, that you just keep going and you don’t care, which is a good attitude, that you just keep writing. Not any one play is precious. You do the best you can in each situation as it comes to you. No writer is made of one play. If they are, they’re not very good writers. And you just keep going. That I learned there.
SS What is the job of the playwright?
EM It’s the duty of the playwright to sneak in as many effronteries as he can. If you act completely effrontive to people, they’ll never go listen. So you gotta sneak it past them. In the second act, I let ‘em have it, and they sometimes don’t forgive me for it, and sometimes they do. Sometimes I’ll let ‘em have it from the beginning, like in Don Juan in New York, then they can’t handle it.
SS So if you start your play with a naked man dancing onstage, selling his body …
EM Then you’re turning off 90% of the audience. But if you start a play with a man pretending to be a woman who looks like a really nice Oriental, and halfway through you show the audience his pecker, then you’re getting their sensationalist fervor going, and they can handle it. And it’s just as simple as that.
SS Like reading The Enquirer.
EM Right, right. If you just boldly show them something that you’ve seen out in life, they think it’s unreal and they can’t take it. The more real life gets onstage, the more unreal it appears to people. I find that fascinating. Of course I know that I’m intolerant of things too.
SS Like what?
EM I’m intolerant of middle-class life. I walk out of plays that I feel are catering to the audience, telling them that they’re really good, and they don’t have to change anything. I don’t know how you can live in the world right now and think that you don’t have to change anything, and that we are really good. We’re all really bad, we’ve really failed. We’ve really, really failed, and we’re failing as we speak.
SS What have we failed to do?
EM This is a society in which people are not taken care of, where people get taken care of less and less. We’ve polluted the earth to the point where we might completely fuck it up. And on and on. Nothing we’ve done is right, so why should we act like we’re do-gooders? I hate people who think they’re good and write about good people, because I’ve met people who are trying to be good, but I’ve never met a good person.
SS Are those the people that you write about?
EM Some of them are trying to be good; some of them are trying to be bad. They’re all trying, and they don’t have any solutions. That’s what I hate the most, is a play that gives you a solution, because I don’t think there are any.
SS Take your Don Juan, for example. Is that character trying to be good?
EM No, that character’s trying to destroy himself. But himself, and one has the right to destroy oneself. I think that what I wanted to say in that play is: sometimes people went sexually over their limit, and at the same time, this disease happened. I was tired of all these plays where everybody was very proper and only did it once and then got AIDS. It’s just not the whole truth. The whole truth is that people were real sluts. So what? And they took it beyond the boundary. So what? But people were always talking about “Oh, that poor person, he was very good and only slept around once, and he caught it.” No, you’re just as good if you’re a slut, and you shouldn’t die if you’re a slut. And somebody needs to say that.
SS So the moral issue is not whether one is promiscuous or not.
EM The moral issue is, how do you behave in the relationships that you do have. I used to think that you went to heaven if you really put out in bed. I really did. (laughter) For a lot of years. And that might be considered “promiscuous.” And it might be self-destructive. It was probably all those things. But it might also have been generous, you know. And I think a lot of people thought like that, and now we’re all denying that that’s what we thought. I mean, that’s what the ‘70s were all about. And I liked a lot of it. And I’d much rather be young then than young now. And it didn’t kill me. And it didn’t hurt me. It hurt, but it made me somebody who I want to be.
Stuart Spencer is a playwright whose work appears at the Ensemble Studio Theater.
As artists, we have to find the antidote to this darkness right now, to how everything feels so compressed rather than expanded.