“Art must overcome everything, culture is life” interview with Fatima Patterson on what theatre means to her

Fatima Patterson (taken from Cubaescena.cult.cu)

As Fatima Patterson, Cuban theatre actor, playwright and director, 2017 Cuban Theatre National Award winner, turns 70, she was interviewed by the Cuban theatre press CubaEscena about her work, inspiration and feelings about the role of art during the covid 19 pandemic.

With more than 50 years of artistic life and having passed through radio and television, it can be said that theatre is the centre of your existence. Do you agree? What did these other media do for you?
FP: All the media have contributed something to me, television, radio (which is the one I like the most), I feel a special disposition towards radio, however, the theatre has a “little bug” that gets into the blood and in your whole being and it steals all your attention, it steals your time. You have to dedicate a lot of time to the theatre, almost everything. I love being on stage, now I am not so much because I am directing, but I do not give up, I do my forays from time to time and that pleases me a lot.

Pure Santiaguera, how does Los Hoyos influence your reason for living?
FP: I live in the neighborhood of Los Hoyos and for me I am proud because it is a neighbourhood where many important things in the history of the nation occurred. Guillermón Moncada, Quintín Bandera was born in my neighborhood, there is Antonio Maceo’s house, Frank País’s house and those cultural centres such as the base of the conga group ‘Los Hoyos’, the Cabildo Carabalí Izuama, the Tumba Francesa [a specific AfroCuban music, dance and ritual practice], and all that marked my life somehow. Who I am, I owe in part to having been born in this special environment. The conga of Los Hoyos is famous, that sound is very strong, it calls for battle, and having fallen asleep with that sound of the conga, the carabalí, the Tumba Francesa, yes, because everyone practiced in this neighborhood. Something must have happened, they are in my DNA, I have that predilection for defending traditional popular culture.

Being a prophet in your own land is something difficult to achieve for any provincial artist. How have you achieved it and what would be your advice to the new creators from Santiago?
FP: Being born in a province is something so beautiful, good things have happened to me, but it is not that simple, you have to have a lot of perseverance, a desire to work and to stay. I think the capital is attractive to everyone, we as a group from time to time dabble in festivals in Havana, in Camagüey, we tour the provinces.
That the people of your province, of your environment love you, respect you and feel proud of your achievements is wonderful, that that has given me a lot, that they feel part of the things that have happened to me, they have suffered and have laughed with me. That is important to me.
Being a prophet in one’s own land is nice, but it’s not easy. The people around you are very hard on their people, they demand a lot of them, that is important and it is good. For young people the message would be that you have to persevere, you have to identify with what is close to you, you have to feel part of something, while still looking towards other regions or other places of development, but you have to really feel part of something, deeply committed to somewhere.

The theatre and performing arts in general have been greatly affected since COVID-19 arrived in our country in 2020. How has Teatro Macubá remained active and what are your experiences in this period?
FP: This pandemic is difficult, for the theatre it is much more complicated because it is a face-to-face art. People are going to sit, to see, to be in the squares, streets, looking. This period has been tremendously difficult. We have really been the most affected, however, we have had no choice.
We have been on the networks, it has given us time to write, read, devise new projects, rethink the works. We have gone from sewing face masks [to distribute to local people] to sitting and looking inside. We have been very concerned about what will happen to this pandemic and human beings. We have to be conscientious, we have to take care of ourselves because it is a terrible disease. The theatre will resurface when all this happens, hopefully sooner rather than later.

What is your biggest dream and worst nightmare when you reach your 70th birthday?
FP: Turning 70 is a gift, there are people who don’t reach there, I have many dreams and also nightmares. When one reaches this age, one begins to rethink about the things that one did not do or were left to do, what one wanted to do that one could not; And these are the nightmares: one wants things to be better, to do more, to have time.
I don’t dream so much, my wish is buying time, I wish I had a little more time to do things I want to do, see things I want. It’s simple, and when one reaches this age you look back over many things and, well, I only ask for time to complete the work.

You have accumulated a lot of awards and recognition for your work, what do the awards mean for you?
FP: During all this time I have obtained awards, recognitions, many beautiful things, but this helps vanity, and when you live in the province it helps to make the person who obtains the recognitions and awards visible, it should also be in other ways. This is something that helps those of us who are far from the capital, what happens is that one does not work precisely for that, the effort is to make a work committed to its environment, its people, to society, the theatre is a social commitment and you have to be true to that, It is not just a phrase, it is a deep commitment to society and that must be kept. I have always said that I like the theatre a lot, and if doing something that you like is good for you, it becomes something beautiful.

The empowerment of women, race, religion and traditional popular culture, among others, are themes that appear in your work. Why?
FP: Although there are many battles won and our society has focused on giving a voice to those who did not have it, on empowering women, there are still things to be resolved. It is from this point that my work has focused. From the beginning, Macubá’s themes are race, marginalization, women and death. Not physical death, but that spiritual death that is worse than all deaths, the “miserable misery”, which is dying while alive.
These themes have been our plays, they are there in ‘Mundo de Muertos‘ (‘World of the dead’), which talks about a black woman from Santiago in homage to Celeste Mendoza, they are in ‘Initiation‘ in black and white for women without colour, they are in ‘Repique por Mafifa‘, one of the first plays I wrote, about the female bell player from Los Hoyos who managed to earn a space in that very macho environment, being the bell player and female in La conga de Los Hoyos is very important and transgressive.
We do not use popular religiosity as folklore just to decorate our plays, we go to the essence of these elements to find ways to express ourselves in our poetry and they are the phenomena with which we work, the issues with which we deal. There have been re-readings of ‘My partner Manolo’, written by Eugenio Hernández Espinosa, also of Margarita Borges’s texts always about women, and others by Federico García Lorca, which, although distant, gave rise to ‘La casa’.
The premises of our works are: give a voice to those who do not have a voice, reveal the existing problems in society and women as the centre of everything. This is what I have done these 29 years with Estudio Macubá.

What work has been interrupted by COVID-19 and what projects are coming up?
FP: Just when the pandemic broke out in Cuba in March 2020, we were returning from a national tour and after 3 days of being here everything started. We were touring with a work that is really successful, an approach to ‘La casa de Bernarda Alba’ by Federico García Lorca and a version of Bernarda by our advisor and playwright Margarita Borges. From those two texts a third text came out, ‘La casa’, that was the last thing we did. We had to stop rehearsals of a show that we have named ‘Molière and other demons’, which is based on characters from the works of the French playwright and the Santiago carnival. That is what we will perform after the pandemic, it is what we are “cooking” for the public, st some point we will have a good season.
In these times of pandemic, so disruptive, in which we think so much about the quality of life of our people, art has to overcome everything: art, culture is life, it fights very special battles to save the spirituality of people.
I send a message of unity to all artists, especially those of us who make theatre, this is a moment of unity to save us all, to save the nation and to take paths that make us better people and make us a better country.

Link to original interview in Spanish by CubaEscena

Read more about Fatima Patterson and her work here