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The Commons
The Arts

Making 'herstory'

Performance artists Carmelita Tropicana and Ain Gordon come to Marlboro to rewrite history

“History Herstory,” presented by Vermont Performance Lab in association with the Marlboro College Lectures Committee, is free, with no reservations required. It is made possible with support from the National Endowment for the Arts and VPL’s Creation Fund donors.

Originally published in The Commons issue #242 (Wednesday, February 19, 2014). This story appeared on page B1.



MARLBORO—The hit of last fall’s Brattleboro Literary Festival, when she was one of the outrageous judges of the Literary Death Match, Carmelita Tropicana is returning to Vermont for a performative talk with actor/director/writer Ain Gordon.

“I had such a blast at the festival that I can honestly say that I had one of the best times I ever had in front of an audience,” says “Tropicana,” whose irrepressible spirit and irreverent humor have delighted audiences for more than three decades.

Tropicana is the larger-than-life stage persona of Cuban-born writer/performance artist Alina Troyano. Through Tropicana, Troyano crafts a body of work that follows Carmelita’s exploits as she encourages a dialogue around ethnic, race, class, and gender politics.

Through humor and fantasy, Troyano and Gordon promise to rewrite history in their free “History Herstory,” performed at Marlboro College’s Whittemore Theater, South Road, on Wednesday, Feb. 26, at 7 p.m.

The evening is part discussion. The event listing says the pair will analyze Tropicana’s “use and abuse of personal history in a 30-year career spanning Cuba, revolution, coming to America, and coming out.”

“It will be a talk between two artists, including clips and some live performance,” Troyano explains. “I call it Introduction to Carmelita 101.”

Troyano, a bicultural artist, employs the vagaries of spoken language to examine concepts through foreign words. She is the author of I, Carmelita Tropicana: Performing between Cultures, a 2007 collection of performance pieces and essays, and starred in “Carmelita Tropicana: Your Kunst Is Your Waffen” (1994), directed by her sister, Ela Troyano.

Her performances, plays, and videos have been presented at such venues as London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts, Centre de Cultura Contemporánia de Barcelona, and the New Museum of Contemporary Art, which bills itself as the only museum in New York City exclusively devoted to presenting contemporary art from around the world.

She’s earned a New York Foundation for the Arts fellowship, the Berlin Film Festival’s Teddy Award, and a Village Voice Obie Award for sustained excellence in performance.

Troyano is joined at Marlboro by Gordon, her longtime friend and theater cohort.

A three-time Obie Award winner, a two-time NYFA recipient, and a Guggenheim fellow in playwriting, Gordon is a playwright, director, and actor based in New York City. His work frequently deals with the interstices of history, focusing on people and events often overlooked or marginalized in what he calls “official” histories.

Gordon worked in Brattleboro last year to complete and direct “Not what Happened,” a performance of his study of life in 19th century rural Vermont. The play, developed with Vermont Performance Lab and Marlboro College, premiered at the BAM Next Wave Festival.

‘The spontaneity of things...’

Troyano says “History Herstory” is an improvisation that will grow from Gordon interviewing her: “Nothing is planned and I don’t know what Ain will ask me. I like the spontaneity of things; we’ll just have to find out what happens.”

She adds that she anticipates she’ll talk a bit about her career and present performance pieces. Gordon will join in discussing the role of the artist in culture today.

“He thinks very deeply about culture and how we conceive of the past. In fact, history and language are two preoccupations of both of us as artists — although we deal with the ideas in very different ways,” Troyano explains.

Gordon and Troyano had known each other as friends for years, but it wasn’t until relatively recently that they developed an artistic bond. They performed together in actor and writer Spalding Gray’s posthumous “Stories Left to Tell.” With the support of Gray’s widow, the play draws from Gray’s journal and several monologues.

“Gray was so celebrated for telling his own stories, which are filled with his special dry wit and his Northern, Rhode Island point of view, that I was surprised how well his monologues work when performed by someone like me, a Cuban-American woman,” Troyano says.

She adds: “Or, for that matter, Ain, who won an Obie for his amazing performance when the show played (without me) off Broadway.”

What’s in a character?

Troyano explains that she developed her Tropicana character in the 1980s when she belonged to WOW Café Theater, a New York City-based collective where works produced, written, and directed by women are still showcased weekly.

“I took a class in stand-up comedy there,” she says. “We were encouraged to share incidents from our lives. I was then very shy, and anxious about the prospect of talking about my past. I thought, Oh, my God, who would want to know about me? That I was born in Cuba and my father was in the Cuban Revolution?”

She says she came to realize that in creating a larger-than-life stage personality she could not only feel comfortable developing these stories, but also make strong statements on race and gender.

As for the name — Carmelita Tropicana — that was the result of a more spontaneous event. Although Troyano had a degree in theater arts, she says it took her “a while” to get into performing.

“At first, in Manhattan, I worked in a very formal job for the City of New York. On the sidelines I began doing things through WOW Café Theater and other exciting theater groups that you could find in New York at that exciting time. And soon enough I found myself performing a dicey radio play by [performance artist] Holly Hughes.”

“The piece we were doing was a take-off on Radclyffe Hall’s groundbreaking lesbian novel, The Well of Loneliness, that Holly retitled as ‘The Well of Horniness.’ As I was about to go on the air, I panicked; I felt that I couldn’t use my name because I had a respectable career to uphold in New York City government.

“Then, out of the blue, I thought of a stage name for myself: Carmelita Tropicana. I immediately knew it was great, since it reflected my bi-cultural leanings: It combines the legendary nightclub from Havana [with] America’s beloved orange juice.”

Vermont Performance Lab makes it happen

“History Herstory” is part of Alina Troyano’s 2014 residency with Vermont Performance Lab, which VPL says provides performing artists with research and development residencies where artists have the resources needed to create new work and to engage in VPL’s rural community around the creative process.

In addition to presenting “History Herstory,” Troyano’s VPL residency includes teaching, research, and a development workshop with Marlboro students in a theater class: Borders, Boundaries, and Crossings.

Troyano says the class explores “the ways in which we construct and perform narratives of identity, using perspectives from performance, gender, and global studies, and combining theory and practice through workshop projects.”

She also plans to apply her time in VPL toward research and development for her newest theater piece, “Schwanze-Beast,” in collaboration with her sister Ela and actor and director Susanne Sachsse.

Part psychological sci-fi thriller and part performative scientific lecture, “Schwanze-Beast” aims to delve into biotech, bio-politics, and civil rights to interrogate what it is that separates man from beast.

Troyano says she’ll be excited to return to Vermont with Ela this April to share that work with audiences.

She adds that she adores Vermont.

“You think that when you’re from New York, you’ve seen it all, but then you go somewhere else and you find yourself overwhelmed by the landscape and the culture. I will always love Brattleboro because it’s the first place I ever tasted real maple syrup. […] Let me tell you, there’s nothing like the real thing.”

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