Theater & art

Political upheaval, personal discovery in ‘Daughter of a Cuban Revolutionary’

Marissa Chibas’s one-person show deals with dramatic events: a political revolution, a very public suicide, and a daring escape to the United States in a small motorboat.
Miranda Wright
Marissa Chibas’s one-person show deals with dramatic events: a political revolution, a very public suicide, and a daring escape to the United States in a small motorboat.

Every family has stories. The ones in Marissa Chibas’s family, though, are particularly dramatic. They involve a political revolution, a very public suicide, and a daring escape to the United States in a small motorboat.

The straightforward title of her one-person show is instructive: “Daughter of a Cuban Revolutionary.” The revolutionary in question is her father, Raúl Chibas, an early ally of Fidel Castro who left Cuba stealthily in 1960, along with Marissa’s mother, Dalia. ArtsEmerson is bringing “Daughter” to the Jackie Liebergott Black Box Theatre at the Paramount Center for six performances beginning Wednesday.

Onstage, the actress portrays four people: her father; her mother, who was a runner-up in the Miss Cuba beauty contest the year before fleeing her home and her country; her uncle Eduardo Chibas, a prominent political figure and radio host; and herself.

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Through a long process of making and refining the show, Chibas found her most challenging work, perhaps, creating that last character.

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“I really feel like I found myself through the process of making this piece, and found my voice as an artist through this piece,” Chibas says, speaking on the phone from Los Angeles. “I think there are a lot of ways in which I’m the daughter of a Cuban revolutionary, and different ways that’s significant and part of my art-making.”

But if audiences come away with a story about finding personal discovery by digging into the familial past, they were likely lured in the first place on the strength of the remarkable history “Daughter of a Cuban Revolutionary” sketches out.

The actress’s uncle Eduardo founded Cuba’s reformist Orthodox Party in 1947, opposing government corruption, supporting free market practices, and urging resistance to American influence. A young Castro was an enthusiastic party member. After warning of an impending coup by military chief and past president Fulgencio Batista, Chibas fatally shot himself in a radio studio while there for his weekly broadcast.

Eduardo’s younger brother, Raúl, took over the party. When he and a prominent economist named Felipe Pazos later co-signed Castro’s revolutionary document known as the Sierra Manifesto in 1957, it was seen as granting mainstream credibility to Castro’s in-progress rebellion.

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“And what do all the opposition political parties, the revolutionary sectors, and the civic institutions have in common?,” the manifesto signed by the three men reads, in English translation. “The desire to put an end to a regime based on force, the violation of individual rights, the infamous crimes, the desire to seek the peace that we all long for by the only road possible, the democratic and constitutional path of our country.”

In one of the 20th century’s historical ironies, the same concerns and complaints would be lodged against Castro after he assumed power in 1959.

Raúl, a major in the Cuban Army, was an active participant in the Castro revolution. But in 1960, distressed by the direction in which his onetime comrade was heading, he and wife Dalia defected and fled to Florida in a motorboat. In the United States, he became a prominent Castro critic.

Though this back story figures into the geopolitics of the Western hemisphere in the latter half of the century, for Marissa Chibas, growing up with her family in New York City, it was filled with sensitive and painful details about which she was curious, but unsure how to bring up.

“When I was younger, there is no question that when my uncle’s name was mentioned, I could see a lot of pain in my father,” she says. “And I think that kept me from really wanting to ask about it. I think that was something he never recovered from, his brother’s suicide. So it kind of took me a while to have the courage to really delve into this.”

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When she started conceiving of a project based on this history — she envisioned it for years as a film before landing on the idea of a multi-character, solo play — she was surprised by her father’s response. “My fears were wrong. Though it was painful, I realized he needed to talk about it. He needed to talk about that whole time period of his life, and about his brother in particular,” she says.

After a long development period, “Daughter of a Cuban Revolutionary” played off-Broadway in 2007. Chibas has toured it intermittently over the years; the Boston run is an isolated engagement.

The show’s original director, Mira Kingsley, says Chibas performs a ritual here that goes beyond simply portraying other people.

“It’s one thing to pretend that you’re somebody, but Marissa has a very particular ability to allow these energies of these people to enter her. I would not hesitate to call it a form of shamanism, where she lets these ancestors enter her and speak through her,” Kingsley says. “Any time someone tells their personal story and tells it with a skill that an artist like Marissa has, it opens a possibility for each of us to we go into our own ancestry and connect.”

Chibas has visited Cuba five times, interviewing people who remembered her father and uncle. Raúl Chibas died before “Daughter of a Cuban Revolutionary” made it to the stage in its final form. Marissa did, though, get to perform it in Miami with her mother in the audience.

Dalia was struggling by that point with dementia, her daughter says, but the performance inspired a very lucid exchange.

“On the way home,” Chibas says, “she told my sister: Tonight, I was a star.’ ”

Daughter of a Cuban Revolutionary

Presented by ArtsEmerson. At the Jackie Liebergott Black Box Theatre, Paramount Center, April 27-May 1. Tickets: $10-$60, 617-824-8400, www.artsemerson.org

Jeremy D. Goodwin can be reached at jeremy@jeremydgoodwin.com.