Arena’s ‘Celia and Fidel’ could not be more timely: Heather Velazquez

The deliciously comic young actress, who aspires to be Castro’s comrade (and stand-in for his late mistress), talks about her role in her cousin's play.

When Celia and Fidel—now in a long-delayed world premiere at Arena Stage—opens, the heroine of the title, Celia herself, is dead.

Nevertheless, her ghost continues to haunt Fidel, criticizing his speeches (they are all too long) and his self-aggrandizing behavior. But her arguments, like her persona, have no effect.

Andhy Mendez (Fidel Castro) and Heather Velazquez (Consuelo) in Eduardo Machado’s Celia and Fidel.’ Photo by Margot Schulman.

It is left to Consuelo, the newly drafted replacement, to try to fill her predecessor’s shoes. In this fictional recreation of a moment in history, the spunky idealist tries to get the aging Castro—a Cuban hero teetering on the edge of dictatorship—to do what’s right for the country.

The time is 1980 and crisis looms. (For a wonderful summary of these events, including the U.S. blockade, check out Jordan Wright’s review in DC Metro Theater Arts.)

According to Heather Velazquez, who plays the role of Consuelo, the current production could not be more timely. “We’re seeing an exact replay of the events of 1980,” Velazquez said, pointing out that the crisis in Cuba, now as then, is the result of rampant injustice.

“The rich eat steak while the poor go hungry and die of COVID,” she added. “As a result, there couldn’t be a better time to reopen this play.”

While the abrupt closing in March 2020 was devastating, it allowed time for the playwright, Eduardo Machado, to rethink the trajectory of the drama.

Heather Velazquez

That was great for Velazquez, who in real life is the playwright’s cousin. “Eduardo knew that there were issues,” the actress said, adding that the role of Consuelo has been considerably strengthened and enlarged, from comic foil to startling voice of the people.

Despite the shock of opening and closing on the same night, and then waiting so long to reopen, the cast of Celia and Fidel remains the same.

“It was a gutsy decision to bring us all back,” Velazquez said, crediting Molly Smith, Arena’s artistic director, with the determination to mount the show, which is the seventh in the theater’s Power Plays initiative.

“Molly is an actor’s dream, a director who makes actors think about the roles in ways that they would not otherwise have done,” said Velazquez, pointing out that Celia and Fidel is more than just a closeup of revolution on the brink of tyranny.

Marian Licha (Celia Sánchez), Liam Torres (Manolo Ruiz), Heather Velazquez (Consuelo), and Andhy Mendez (Fidel Castro) in Eduardo Machado’s Celia and Fidel.’ Photo by Margot Schulman.

“My character—Consuelo—is a farmer’s daughter, a simple peasant whose family was incredibly poor, downtrodden by a corrupt government. Castro literally lifted them up,” she said. “So she idolizes him. But she wants him to change, to save the revolution, not end it. What she wants is for him to end the American embargo and move on.

“During the Cuban Revolution, everyone shouted, ‘My Country or Death!’ Today,” the actress continued, “the slogan is ‘Patria y Vida—My Country and Life!’”

Although Velazquez and Machado are cousins, they did not meet until 15 years ago. Like many immigrant families, theirs headed for different parts of the country when they arrived, with his settling in California and hers in Florida.

When they finally met, it was at a family reunion in Miami. “It was a magical meeting,” Velazquez said. Although a generation apart—she is the daughter of the playwright’s first cousin—the two bonded immediately. “He was already a successful playwright, and I had been acting since I was 12.”

The two have been close ever since, with Velazquez appearing in many of Machado’s plays, including Pipeline at Lincoln Center, American Mariachi at the Denver Center, and Rosario and the Gypsies at Theatre for the New City. Today, both live in the New York area, she in a tiny apartment in Astoria, Queens, and he in Upstate New York.

Running Time: Two hours, with one 15-minute intermission.

Celia and Fidel plays through November 21, 2021, in the Kogod Cradle at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth Street SW, Washington, DC. Tickets ($40–$95) may be purchased online, by phone at 202-488-3300, or at the Arena Stage sales office Tuesday through Saturday from noon until 8 p.m. for phone purchases and beginning 90 minutes prior to each performance until curtain for in-person purchases. For information on savings programs such as pay-your-age tickets, student discounts, Southwest Nights, and hero’s discounts, visit arenastage.org/tickets/savings-programs.

The digital program can be viewed here.

COVID Safety: Proof of vaccination against COVID-19 and photo identification must be shown to enter the building. Arena’s complete safety protocols are here.

SEE ALSO:
A powerful and meaningful ‘Celia and Fidel’ at Arena Stage review by Jordan Wright

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