In 2003, the College of Humanities at the University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras hosted a five-week National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Seminar entitled "Caribbean Theater and Cultural Performance." The seminar projected a rich cultural mosaic that provided the participants–all professors from U.S. universities–the opportunity to pursue primary research in the creative dramatic expression and performances that characterize the theater, performance art, folk culture, ethnography, and social history of contemporary Caribbean island-states. These societies, including Puerto Rico, occupy precarious positions between insular provinciality and the pervasiveness of globalization with its presumed erasure of local specificity and identity. Thus, the question of how theater and performance forms address (and resist) both the suffocating effects of cultural chauvinism and the homogenizing tendencies of global commodification became one of the seminar's principal concerns. The framework supplied by ethnographic, ontological, and postcolonial theories and critical thought on performance provided only partial and less than adequate responses. More satisfying approaches emerged through creative interactions in workshops with contemporary Puerto Rican theater artists and performers such as Rosa Luisa Márquez, Teresa Hernández, Deborah Hunt, Viveca Vázquez, and Pedro Adorno, whose works illustrate regional and international as well as local tendencies and themes. Alongside other examples of formal and popular cultural performances drawn from the Anglophone and Francophone islands as well as the Hispanic Caribbean, the seminar process concluded with field research in Loíza Aldea during the Festival of Santiago Apóstol.
Viewing the festival through the lens of performance permits the "reading" of the processions of the three diminutive saints as texts and their carnvalesque characters–Spanish knights (caballeros), trickster-diablos (vejigantes), men cross-dressed as women (locas) and the old men (viejos) duped by them–as
dramatic protagonists. Furthermore, the "performance" of Santiago Apóstol includes geocultural and aesthetic issues of space, movement, rhythm, and visual and corporeal plasticity. Other themes revolve around the roles of spectator-participants as well as devotees and performers, the homoeroticism of masquerade, the rizomatic relation of this syncretic festival to other Afro-Creole popular cultural performances throughout the Caribbean, and the self-representation of sexual, racial, and geopolitical identities. The immediate byproducts of these encounters appear as articles, interviews, and reviews in Sargasso (2004-2005, II): Caribbean Theater and Cultural Performance (available in April 2005).
Two distinct but not unrelated tendencies underlie the development of contemporary Caribbean theater and performance: (A) the kinesthetic presence of the myriad of folk festivals, parades, religious ceremonies, rituals, and spectacles that reflect the majority population descended from enslaved and indentured laborers and the Amerindian cultures that preceded them; and (B) the European literary or artistic theater, originally staged to entertain the colonial elite, that extends to include avant-garde forms of contemporary experimental theater and performance.
The transculturation of popular performance, folk arts and festivals remains constant: these forms grow, mutate, combine, or decline, especially as they assume increasingly globalized features. For example, an astounding array of mass-produced objects and materials often replaces handcrafted festival masks and costumes in traditional celebrations and processions. Celebrations, many with religious origins, receive major financial support from international beer, liquor, beverage, and snack producers and distributors. Global marketing practices directly influence the music produced for local competitions and events. While some forms have faded or virtually disappeared in the crush of modernism, urban development, and economic migrations and interventions, others such as the Festival of Santiago Apóstol, although diminished in importance, record less drastic changes. Still others such as Carnival in Trinidad and Cuba have been transformed into massive international celebrations and sources of national revenue.
Raúl Ayala, mask maker from Loíza
The conventional or "professional" theater, although still capable of producing new dramatic texts and revivals, appears to have lost much of its ability to convoke an audience and confront the fundamental issues of sociality and citizenry that surface in the transition from locally- to globally-constituted identities. Formal Caribbean theater reflects a similar degree of fragmentation, dislodgment, and, if only partial, reconstitution also noticeable in metropolitan theater and performance. These circumstances also lead to the emergence of new forms of theater and performance not directly tied to conventional spaces, the rules of commodification, or the accepted local standards of propriety. These forms reflect broader global trends in performance art, experimental dance, collaborative installation, and ecological and community action groups while maintaining close ties to grassroots and folk performance forms and ceremonies. They also tend to incorporate the experiences of the previously ignored or stigmatized Caribbean population living abroad in metropolitan centers in North America and Europe. In the process, theatrical expression assumes greater verbal and physical articulateness through the work of speaking dancers, mimes, acrobats, and monologists. Theater collectives reemerge to work inside and outside "professional" theater structures and frequently as part of community "action" groups that perform as agents of individual, social, and cultural development.
Inside Antonio Benítez-Rojo's reading of Caribbean culture as "performance," each dramatic text opens the "doors to two great orders of readings": one epistemological and "linked to the West" and the other–the “principal” order–"teleological, ritual, nocturnal, and referring to the Caribbean itself" (The Repeating Island, 23); one ordered and modern and the other chaotic, performative, and often simultaneously pre- and postmodern. Yet over the past decade this, perhaps, too neat description of complex genealogies, shows signs of wear, and Caribbean art and society face new questions raised by more recent cultural cyber-digital-mass media and political globalization: Who and where is the Caribbean citizen as the paradigm shifts from social and literary dramas produced on national stages to the society of the spectacle and the virtual images of satellite and/or cybernetic transmission? Do the dreams and realities of Caribbean people change significantly if and when they cross the digital divide? What forms of social empowerment counterbalance possible uprootedness and homogenization, on the one hand, with unintegrated cultural retentions and interethnic and regional confrontations, on the other hand? As global citizens, how and to whom do we express our ambivalence or faith?
Questions such as these motivated the participants of the 2003 NEH Summer Seminar, just as they form the undergirding for the creative projects of many of the artists and performers who contributed to the seminar. A new generation of talented Puerto Rican playwright-director-performers, most still in their twenties, also responds to these impulses and possibilities for creative, critical, and theoretical studies and research in theater and performance.
Opportunities to study performance exist on this campus in the College of General Studies and in the Departments of Drama and Fine Arts and in the Interdisciplinary Studies BA Program (BEI by its Spanish acronym) of the College of Humanities. Graduate courses and projects in the Departments of Comparative Literature and English explore performance theory, and the Ph.D. program in Caribbean Literature in English offers an area of emphasis in Drama and Cultural Performance.