Friday, September 05, 2008

Mario Barrios: Humor from Havana to Somerville.

Mario Barros: Humor from Havana to Somerville.

Mario Barros was born in Cuba in 1953. Mr. Barros co-wrote the college textbook “The Literature of the United States” while he was a history professor in Cuba. He founded the comedy “Lenguaviva” (Living Language) that was a presence on theatre, radio and TV. He wrote more than 70 songs and skits for his repertory, and won two Cuban national comedy awards. In Somerville, he has directed the Somerville High Drama Club and has produced a number of plays including his own “Five Insomniac Plays.” I interviewed him on my Somerville Community Access TV Show “ Poet to Poet: Writer to Writer.”

Doug Holder: You were born in Cuba. I will ask you what Senator Joe McCarthy asked many U.S. citizens: “ Are you now or ever been a member of the Communist party?
Mario Barros: I was never a member of the Communist Party. When I was young I belonged to the juvenile organization of the party. That was a must for every youngster. I practically grew up with the revolution. Around 1985 or 6—during Perestroika in the Soviet Union, a lot of people like me started to question the way they approached the whole process. I thought there was nothing for me here anymore. I started to write humor, as an avenue to criticize society. I was forced to come to America in a way by my humor.

DH: You were an academic in Cuba, teaching at the University. You co-wrote the text “The Literature of the United States” Who did you include? Did the government censor any of the material?

MB: It was a text for college courses so we had a certain leeway. I was a professor for the Institutes of Foreign Languages in Havana. I was one of the three people who wrote the text. The text included everyone from James Fenimore Cooper to Washington Irving. Anything that was written far in the past was fine. When you came to 20th Century literature you had to pick and choose more carefully. You would not pick an author who would glorify capitalism for instance. We included Hemingway, Langston Hughes, Ralph Ellison, and Upton Sinclair, and others. I loved including Mark Twain, because, of course, he was a master humorist.

DH: Your comedy troupe “Living Language” was a celebrated performance group in Cuba. It won national wards. Now, if it won awards in Communist Cuba, did the group have to tow the party line?
MB: In the mid-1980’s a number of comedy groups sprung from the college level. Not just comedy, the arts in general. It was a moment in time that the government would tolerate a certain amount of rebellion. In the festivals we took part in there was always a censor in the background. You could say things, but there was not total openness. You couldn’t say” “Fidel is stupid,” for instance.

DH: You were the head of the Somerville High School Drama Program for 7 years. What plays did you produce?

MB: The first play I produced was Ionesco’s: “The Bald Soprano” My idea was to have a program to promote original writing. There were misunderstandings about it but I ran it for a while. I wanted the kids to produce their own original work. There were a couple of our plays produced in a Mass. Theatre Festival sponsored by The Boston Globe.

DH: You worked with some controversial material—how was this work received?

MB: I had a very good reception. We did a play “Removing the Glove,” that dealt with homosexuality. It was a very sensitive subject. It was very well received. My own plays usually involve some surreal aspects.

DH: In your latest collection of short stories “The Color Does Not Fall From The Sky”, the setting is a suburban train. Why?

MB: This is a story about an immigrant. He was a storyteller in his country. He was well loved, until one day he told a story about dictatorship, and some people didn’t like it. From that moment on he was ostracized, so he went to a northern country. He couldn’t find a job as a storyteller, but he realizes he still needs an audience. So he gets in a suburban train everyday, the second coach, with the same people every day. He tells them a story every day, and so it goes…

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