Sage Lewis has spiked hair and the determined gaze of a would-be guerrilla leader. From his home in Highland Park, Lewis launched an arts collective that achieved the near-impossible: It invaded Cuba.
Cuban musicians frequently tour the U.S., but American artists rarely go to the island. Though President Obama recently loosened travel restrictions for those with family in Cuba, culturally the island remains isolated. Aside from rap music and pirated Hollywood movies, Cubans have little exposure to American art.
After staging a performance in Havana last month, Lewis knows why.
It's hard enough getting approval from the Communist Party Central Committee. But throw in two blackouts and a flood, and you start to see why most American artists don't bother.
Lewis, 30, began work on the project while still an MFA student at CalArts, where he met most of his American collaborators. He had visited Cuba several times, first as a 19-year-old who knew little more than Buena Vista Social Club. He picked up more with each visit, and decided he wanted to do some sort of cultural exchange.
"Cuba is technically our enemy," he says. "It's an attempt to build friendship and understand who our enemy is."
His idea for the performance was to film Cuban actors in Cuba, then show the film with American performers interacting live onstage with the on-screen characters.
With that approach, he could solve the physical problem of not having the Cubans available for U.S. performances. He took what might otherwise have been an art-school gimmick and used it to dramatize the gulf between Cubans and Americans.
Olga Garay, the head of the L.A. Department of Cultural Affairs, credited Lewis and his team with using new technology "to overcome the draconian limits imposed by the continuing political disagreements between our two countries."
The script came out of a collaboration between two playwrights, an American and a Cuban. They also partnered with producers in Cuba, relying on e-mail to communicate. Talking by phone was prohibitively expensive. Shipping was so difficult that they had to use couriers. One package of DVDs was sent first to an associate in Tokyo, who was able to send it on to Cuba.
After obtaining a research license from the U.S. government, the group traveled to Cuba in 2007 and shot video for about six weeks. The work required the permission of Cuban authorities, who first wanted assurances that the filmmakers weren't anti-Castro spies.
"They're paranoid," says Aleigh Lewis, Sage's wife and co-creator of the show. "All of us got background checks."
A series of Cuba's cultural institutions signed off on the project, but ultimate approval had to come from the Communist Party Central Committee. Once permission was granted, Cuban police shut down streets for filming.
The cast includes stars of Cuban soap operas and veteran theater actors. For the world premiere, Lewis and his crew wanted the entire cast — Americans and Cubans — onstage together to take their bows. But doing so meant the show would have to open in Havana.
That's when the real complications began.
The team secured an invitation from the Havana Film Festival. But a few weeks before opening night, Lewis got a discouraging message. Citing logistical concerns, Cuban festival officials said the show would be canceled.
Lewis would have none of it. Within days he caught a plane to Cancun, and from there he flew to Havana. He spent the next three days begging Cuban cultural officials to let the show go on.
In the imagined world of the performance, titled The Closest Farthest Away, cultural exchanges are a little easier. At one point the main character, Amante, gets on a bus in the U.S. and, through the magic of theater, gets off in Cuba.
The tale revolves around the star-crossed romance between Amante, an American scientist, and a Cuban doctor named Ana. They are separated for much of the show, meeting only in the end, somewhere at sea.
"It's not overtly political," says Diane Rodriguez, an associate producer at the Center Theatre Group, who traveled to Havana for the performance. "It's a love story."
In the end, the Cubans relented and granted permission. But then other problems arose.
A water pipe, held together by tape, burst in the crew's apartment and poured water onto several thousand dollars' worth of computers and digital projectors. The crew managed to rescue the gear, without which there would have been no show.
The production was scheduled for the Teatro Mella, an old movie house named for a communist hero from the 1920s.
"It's one of the nicest theaters in Havana," says Chi-wang Yang, the show's director. "And yet, at the same time, literally the only tools this crew had were one hammer and one pair of pliers."
On opening day, December 4, the show was still being put together at 11 a.m., when the power went out. As the actors were rehearsing that afternoon, the lights went out again.
Still, the show opened as scheduled at 8 p.m., and drew 600 spectators on each of three nights.
"People were very moved by it," says Beth Boone, executive director of the Miami Light Project, one of the show's sponsors. "That was close to impossible, what they achieved."
At a Q&A on the final night, a Cuban film director stood up and said that such a production would not have been possible five or six years ago.
Now the show moves on to Miami, where the Miami Light Project will host the U.S. debut on March 11-13. From there, the group hopes to stage other performances around the country.
Lewis has more plans. He wants to once again mix video with live performance, this time with two children's choirs — one Cuban and one American.
When Lewis is asked if he'd try to mount another production in Cuba, his revolutionary zeal momentarily ebbs.
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Maybe, he says.
"We have all these relationships, and a track record. In some ways, it would be easier to do another project."
But Yang suggests that next time, the Cubans should come here.
For more information, visit projectporamor.com.