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Cuban playwright Jazz Vilá ignites hope with “CANDELA” U.S. debut


Baruch College’s Black and Latino Studies department sponsored the U.S. debut of Cuban playwright Jazz Vilá’s “CANDELA” at Teatro Latea on Sept. 22.

While Vilá has run over 45 productions of the play, it’s his first performance on stage in ten years. The Cuban playwright stars as the titular “Candela,” also known as Gertrudis Calvario, an aspiring actress with a history of production mishaps.

On the night of Candela’s new film’s premiere, singer Perla Rosa shows up mistakenly believing she is at the event to promote her new album. The night officially goes awry when the film reel suddenly cuts to black during the screening, leaving Candela to revisit her failed acting endeavors.

Vilá’s play blurs the boundaries between the stage and the audience, as Vilá’s Candela and other characters said their lines while in the seating area and got up to enter the location. At first, the audience was unsure if the incognito characters were actors or overly enthusiastic participants. Candela constantly broke the fourth wall as she addressed the audience and expected responses.

“CANDELA” overall maintained a playful and humorous tone, with Vilá playing the protagonist in drag and constantly forgetting Rosa’s name. Still, as the story progressed, it touched upon more introspective themes of failure and missed opportunities.

After the performance, BLS interim chair Shelly Eversley moderated a post-show talkback where Baruch students and faculty asked Vilá questions about the production and Cuba’s cultural scene.

Vilá revealed that the play was initially written during the pandemic and started as a monologue in Spanish before evolving into a two-character space with bolero songs.

Cuban actress Yordanka Ariosa, who also plays Rosa in the Cuban production, memorized her English lines phonetically and ad-libbed some lines. Rosa’s songs were sung in their native Spanish, but an English translation of the lyrics was projected in the background.

The theater company Jazz Vilá Projects was founded in 2015 and has held over 200 performances to an audience of over 15,000 in Havana, Cuba.

While “CANDELA” is Vilá’s U.S. theatrical debut, it’s not his first time performing in an American production. The actor recently starred in the 2022 American film “The Mick and the Trick.”

Vilá aims to make theater appealing and accessible to a mass audience in a country with limited funding and lacking infrastructure.

However, his efforts have received some criticism.

“The artists in Cuba, they hate me a lot,” Vilá said. “Because they say I am a commercial theater. But I say for me, the theater is not about being classical. It’s about teaching people through entertainment.”

Teatro Latea and Jazz Vilá Projects’ sold-out production of “CANDELA” ran from Sept. 8 to Sept. 24. BLS adjunct professor Miguel Trelles is the theater’s executive director.

The BLS department was awarded a two-year $150,000 Mellon Foundation grant in February to fund more “community-engaged” learning opportunities for students.

According to Eversley, BLS plans to host a zine-making workshop on Oct. 19 with Afro-Latina artist and activist Sharon Lee De La Cruz, who previously hosted a discussion about comics at Baruch last semester.

The U.S. production of “CANDELA” was also sponsored by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs.

Vilá hopes “CANDELA” will motivate aspiring artists and creatives to pursue their passions despite failure.

“Candela is a torch of fire and hope,” Vilá said. “[Despite] misfortune, she kept going. But of course, at the moment, she said ‘enough,’ but [Rosa] said ‘never give up, take my hand, I will sing with you.'”

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Mia Euceda
Mia Euceda, Arts & Culture Editor
Mia Euceda is the Arts and Culture Editor of The Ticker.
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