For thousands of Cubans who escaped to the U.S. when Castro took over the country and confiscated their lands and dreams in the name of Communism, there was always the hope of return. Fifty years later the hopes have manifested into reality. Adelaide Mestre, of Cuban ancestry, was one of those who followed her dream to return to her Cuban roots.
Hers was an incredible journey, which took on an unusual mission: to search for the piano her concert-pianist father played as a child. In her solo performance piece, Top Drawer, a poignant, funny and meaningful look back at her childhood from her (“top drawer”) life on the Upper East Side to her present-day re-connection with her Cuban heritage on her visit to Havana, Mestre weaves an emotional, humorous portrait that touches the heart and uplifts the soul.
When I saw Top Drawer, your solo performance at The Triad in New York City – which I loved, by the way – I enjoyed the humor and pathos and how the show held so beautifully together. How did the show evolve?
The full title is Top Drawer, Stories of Dysfunction and Redemption from Park Avenue to Havana. The show had a slow evolution and actually came together in pieces. Initially, I wrote a piece about music in my family that was an assignment from a writing teacher that had been a writing prompt. In that piece came out the history of my family and music. For example, how the love of music went back generations and how the thwarted ambition[s] of my parents all got passed down to me.
That piece about music in my family connected to a singing teacher I met later in life. Manny, my singing teacher, became a character in the show. And the piece also was about how I finally was able to free myself up enough to sing.
Then I took this extraordinary trip to Cuba. And I wrote a separate piece about what it was like returning to Cuba and looking for my father’s piano.
It never occurred to me that these stories belonged together. But a good friend said, “You see what you have here. Don’t you?” And all of a sudden, the light went [on] in my mind: Searching for the piano and the story of music in my family connected. I added details: all of the personal family drama growing up, told with and through music, while searching for my father’s piano.
Who were some of the individuals who helped you evolve the show?
I had a really great team. There were many people who helped with the evolution and I love collaboration. I originally started with this dear friend who is a writing teacher. He teaches solo show performance. I was taking his class and that’s when I first [started writing] the music piece. He’s always been a cheerleader and fan.
Along the way I had various writing coaches. Then it turned out that my best friend Coco Cohn was the person who surprisingly became my “partner in crime,” and best collaborator. My show was accepted at the International Fringe Festival. I didn’t have a director attached, but I had gotten into the Fringe. I was meeting the deadlines. There was one deadline where you have to submit your director and your title. I still didn’t have a director. When I told Coco, she said, “Use my name for now.” Four weeks later, I was without a director and Coco said, “I think I’m going to have to direct you.”
We found this surprisingly wonderful collaboration. She knows me, my life, my mom. She’s a beautiful actress and an amazing director with an incredible eye. She drew out parts of the story and edited me like crazy and we started weaving it together. We found the back and forth of the two worlds of Cuba and the Upper East Side and different elements and themes in the story.
How did you know when you were done evolving it?
People think because it’s autobiographical and I have a life event, I’m going to add more to the show. I don’t include recent life events. There have been many iterations and a lot of rewrites and it was an evolving script for quite a while. [From] the time I debuted it at the International Fringe until now, there have been about four versions. While you’re doing it, you’re always thinking you could include something and that you’re never finished. If the show were to go to Broadway, and somebody said, “It’s perfect…but it needs…” maybe I’d write a whole new scene. But I think I’ve told the story and finished it.
What inspired you to apply to the International Fringe Festival? Was it a need for an audience to see it, for feedback to help shape it into the successful work you’ve accomplished?
Absolutely. At some point you have to throw it against the wall to see what sticks. I needed a deadline. There were some muddy parts and things I wasn’t sure about. The Fringe would give me a deadline to tighten the script, get it in order and coalescing. I also wanted to see what worked and what went over, what felt good, and solidify the show’s humor.
The material is quite serious. I confide about my father’s suicide, my father’s coming out and his pain and suffering. There were delicate subjects. I had to figure out what tone to strike with them.
My approach is to take the audience as my confidant. I take them on my journey quest. That was something I had to discover: Exactly what was my dialogue with the audience? Then I had to incorporate that in a presentational, theatrical way. I needed to figure out the right balance, like, “Well, I want to share this with you and give you this little aside.” I needed to discover these elements in front of an audience.
So you performed it four times for the four different iterations? Were the audiences different?
I performed it in four different runs. I don’t know if the audience was so different, but the show was different. After each run, I learned. Then I rewrote it and presented something different. The feedback shaped it. I was feeling out the response to the script and seeing how it worked on stage. As a storyteller, I noticed the back and forth with the audience. I also gauged how I felt telling the story. If it didn’t seem complete or feel quite right, I’d go back and do another rewrite and present it again a year later.
Changes happened when I found a Cuban niche audience. At some point it got in the Cuban pipeline and a lot of Cubans started showing up. I got a lot of response to the Havana visit. It strengthened the show. In the first iterations, there was more weight to the history and big events, my Dad’s suicide, his coming out, the breakup of my parents’ marriage. The quest for the piano wasn’t in the forefront. It was in my show and I knew it was important, but it didn’t carry the weight it needed to carry.
Performing, I felt a connection with the Cuban people who lived in exile for 50 years. They’re hearing the story of their homeland, connecting to something that is still there. For me it was the piano. For them it could be whatever it is that is still there, that has disappeared and perhaps can be found. These experiences just brought the gravity, the weight, the poignancy, the depth and richness to the themes and story.
For example, you know the scene where I go to see my Grand Aunt in Cuba? When I do that for a Cuban audience or an audience that has many Cubans in it, sometimes I can barely keep it together, because I can sense them feeling whatever relatives they’ve been separated from, whomever they left behind. I feel the ache that they live with.
And there are some nights when there is just silence. It is terrifying. There is a lot of humor in the show. When I don’t get that laughter, I’m not completely sure that they’re with me. I think, “No. It’s not going over.” A part of me is panicking inside and I walk off the stage and I think, “Oh it was a disaster.” Then I go out and people are on their feet applauding. I learned that people are responding differently to other elements of the story. They’re responding to the pain and the loss. They’re riveted, but they can’t laugh.
Tell me about the performance I saw at The Triad on June 21.
I hadn’t performed in two years. I had a baby and then my Mom passed away and I took some time off. Then in October, 2015, a Cuban charity hired me to perform the show as a benefit. So I got the show back in shape, and performed it and realized how much I loved doing it. I realized I missed performing and I felt the resonance of the story and the impact of it with people’s response to it. I felt that I had to do it again. So when I was doing the show at The Triad, I was doing it after the time I took off.
You are performing at Guild Hall out in East Hampton on July 26th at 7 PM. Could you talk a bit about that?
We got the show back up and running and it was scheduled for four nights back in January. I was initially doing it for my own joy and had no expectations of a long run. I performed the show and we got such great responses and great audiences. People were enthusiastic and there was momentum building, so that it ran up until the night you saw it. The same thing happened before I took the two year break. Before I took the break, I did my last show seven months pregnant and had to stop. People were like OMG she is going to give birth; they were nervous. There was an obstetrician who came to see me one night and he said, “I was worried I was going to have to deliver the baby onstage.”
It was like Audra McDonald in Shuffle Along leaving the show because of her pregnancy.
Yes. We were having such great houses with momentum then. It’s the same now. I think because Cuba opened up, that news added a new excitement and interest. I feel then and now there is a sparkle and a crackle going on. The opportunity opened up in East Hampton at Guild Hall this July. I’ve always loved that theater, I love being out there in the summer and the momentum for the audience is there.
How did you select the music for the show?
We had help. I knew I wanted to expand the show, but I wasn’t sure how. My dear writing teacher asked me to write down all the significant episodes in my life that happened in and around music. As I did, it turned out that many of the stories hinged on a song.
Some of selection was obvious. It was like, “Oh! There was that time I was watching my mother do a cabaret act and she sang ‘In a Very Unusual Way.’” As a result, I wrote about my parents’ marriage as a scene. The song emphasized the love between them and their doomed love affair because he was gay and she could never have him.
As I was digging deeper, culling more material, I sensed there was a story that would resonate. For example there is a scene that takes place in Newport, Rhode Island, an actual concert that my opera-singer-socialite Mom performed, which was an evening of repertoire. Initially, I selected an aria and told the connected story. I did the show with this scene and it worked fine but I didn’t feel it was [claps her hands] really working with snap.
My director said, “I think we need to rewrite that scene.” I chose another song that was part of the concert repertoire, which inspired a whole different element about an episode with my step-brother. So, that’s how that music was selected. Sometimes I’d be writing and I’d remember significant events, like the excitement of seeing Annie as a kid. I knew the songs; that led to another selection for the show. It was an intuitive process. I found the song and the material came along; I found the material and the song came along. Either way, the process revealed themes and events that were going on in my life.
When I was stuck one time and couldn’t decide the next show segment, I went for a walk with my iPod on. The opening number of the show came up, “Without You,” “Sin Ti,” a bolero. As I listened to “Without You” (“Without you it is useless to live, like it is useless to want to forget you”), I thought, “OK. I have to write about my Dad.” Originally, I had included stories about my mother. So that’s another illustration of how I evolved a music selection that changed based upon process.
I think Top Drawer resonates not only with Cubans but with others in terms of how we learn to understand our parents. You obviously learned other aspects of who you are by writing this. Any revelations you had about yourself?
Writing and performing the show gave me perspective about myself and revealed a lot about my parents. That was the beautiful thing about performing it. It gave me compassion for my mother. I recognized how much my parents loved each other. In spite of the fact that theirs was a flawed marriage, they didn’t make it, they separated and my father was gay, the show tracked their courtship – their falling in love, their coming together, their divorce. The song my Mom sang, tracing the romance, as failed as it was, reveals that there was a true love affair between them. Their love was very unconventional, but it endured through time. Long after my father died, my mother was singing about him in a cabaret act.
That realization was a revelation for me. Having gone through some of the experiences I went through, losing my Dad very young, the trauma of their divorce, the crazy step-dad, the chaos and all that I cover in my show, especially my Dad’s suicide, I didn’t always come upon the most warm and accepting, loving embrace of myself. It was important understanding that I came from this deep love; that realization had a big refrain for my life. I was the product of this beautiful love between these two people, which made me see them differently and myself differently. I was able to look at myself and them through this warm lens of love and affection. Though there was a history of difficulty and pain, yet I could hold all of it in a loving embrace.
The show is a testament to your desire to grow and your ability to learn through the creative process. How long did that process take?
Two years; with the rewrites five years; in some ways 10 years. Ten years prior to writing the initial script, I sat down and tried to write a show about my family history. I got about two minutes in and felt devastated and overwhelmed. I just couldn’t do it.
Everything has its time, and now the time is very ripe for Top Drawer.
Adelaide Mestre is performing Top Drawer Tuesday, July 26 at 7 PM at Guild Hall in East Hampton, NY.