A small group of students and I recently attended the performance of El Cimarron: Biography of the Runaway Slave Estaban Montejo, at the Skylight Theater. This contemporary opera, based on Montejo’s own words, is one part of the theater’s look into “Freedom and Revolution” this season. The Skylight was the first stop of what will certainly be an interesting analysis of slavery on stage and in movies around Milwaukee (Click for a Summary of other performances we will attend).
Cimarron translates to maroon or one who “lives on mountaintops” which is exactly the life Esteban Montejo leads after he escapes the horrors of Cuban slave-life. The staging, which included ropes hanging from the ceiling and wound tightly and knotted around metal framework, was powerful in its starkness. At times the rope-work felt like the mast and the rigging of a slave ship but also the vines of a mountain forest that liberated Montejo but always reminded him of his slave past. An excellent theatrical review of the play can be read here.
The play consisted of one performer, Montejo, who explained he was born into a slave infirmary in 1860. His overseers woke the slaves out of their barracks at 6 am and forced them to work in the sugar fields until 9 pm. Montejo believed slaves who worked in the plantation’s home had an easier life when compared to the field hands where it was rumored they had to fan the owner’s and not allow insects near them or their food. Punishment for any slave who showed a lack of effort, any sign of frustration (or a stray fly on a plate) led to brutal violence and whipping where “flesh was torn to ribbons.”
And I knew that working in the fields was like living in hell. You couldn’t do anything on your own. Everything depended on the master’s orders.— Esteban Montejo
The play ends with Montejo’s return to Cuban civilization after slavery was abolished in 1880. He shares how the sugar factories were little better than slave life and how he despises the machines which “enjoyed the protection of a roof.” In 1895, he joined the Revolution against the Spanish and he describes using the machete as a weapon of choice. Following the Spanish, he speaks with disdain over the Yankees and their racist word towards him and other black Cubans.
I was moved by Montejo’s internal struggle, which made for some awkward viewing moments, over slavery, his life alone as a maroon, and racism by foreigners after he was freed. Through unexpected screeching in falsetto voice, followed by booming baritone descriptions, the actor successfully portrayed for me the absolute frustration and hopelessness this slave felt after failed attempts to be acknowledged as a human being. The way Montejo explains in shocking detail how he felt passion, love, anger, pain, remorse and at times hope, is proof that he wanted the reader to know he was a man. But he also uses his words as testimony to incriminate those slave owner perpetrators and warning for the future reader who he assumes will not believe his stories.
Students who attended El Cimmaron described the performance as awkward, tense, confusing, violent, spiritual, offensive and emotional. I agreed with them and explained that conversations and portrayals about slavery are bound to provoke those feelings and reactions. They were also interested in slavery outside of the Continental US and that Cuba abolished slavery many years after America. While watching the play, I was struck by the similarities to Nat Turner, the slave from Virginia that led a rebellion in 1821. My US History classes analyze the numerous ways Turner has been portrayed through history whether as a murderer, religious fanatic or liberator. El Cimarron provided a visual understanding of the frustration and hopelessness that perhaps Turner and other slave insurrectionists must felt. I have attached a powerpoint slide I use that shows numerous images of and emotions of Nat Turner; all of which were represented extremely well on stage at the Skylight.