Monday, 9 January 2012

Cuba acts as inspiration

Will Stone of the Morning Star speaks to actor Adjoa Andoh about her recent trip to Cuba.

"I think Cuba has got a lot to teach us about being decent," says actress Adjoa Andoh. She's taken time out during her lunch break at the BBC, where she's recording a radio play, to tell me about her first impressions of the country.

Andoh recently made her Hollywood debut alongside Morgan Freeman in Clint Eastwood's Invictus and was one of several actors from this country to perform at the Havana Theatre Festival in November.

During their trip, organised by the Cuba Solidarity Campaign, they performed a series of works by playwright Harold Pinter, who was posthumously awarded the International Medal Of Friendship by the Cuban government for his support of Cuba, its people and the revolution.

"When we arrived the airport reminded me of being back home in Ghana, so I loved that," Andoh recalls.

"During the journey in from the airport to Havana I was struck by how green and lush everything was - very rural - and the fact that there was no advertising."

The festival's opening ceremony in a young people's centre was "just fabulous" with giant puppets, stilt-walkers, Cuban hip-hop, film installations, artwork and fireworks.

It was a "real vibrant scene," she says.

And she was impressed by meeting people working at cultural institutes who told her their job is to discover the particular gifts of children and then to put them on the path to developing those gifts. "That's really something else," she stresses.

She cites the Cuban school system, which tests children to see what they have an aptitude in so that those with an engineering will study in that direction and those with a gift for acting will go to drama school.

Apart from "free education, free healthcare, free sanitary wear and free condoms," that discovery of what it is that somebody's gifted in and "how we help them to flourish as a human being," are all things Adjoa believes Britain could follow Cuba's example in.

"That is not education's purpose in this country," she says. "We don't educate to find out what people are really good at so I feel that we are just losing the talents of huge chunks of our population because we're not looking that hard."

Apart from performing Pinter the group helped to run drama workshops and went to visit a music school where the instruments were provided by a fund set up by singer-songwriter Kirsty MacColl, a great lover of Cuba, who was tragically killed 11 years ago.

"It was like Fame in the tropics," Andoh jokes. "There would be children practising on balconies, then you would walk around a corner and there'd be someone playing a bassoon, you'd go upstairs and there'd be another child playing a cello. It was the most inspiring thing.

"We also went to a school for children with disabilities. There was no provision for these children pre-revolution and now they have schools across the island.

"But everyone is working with one hand tied behind their back because they don't get access to all the latest equipment because they're poor and because of the embargo."

Basics like loo paper and soap may be rationed in Cuba, she says, "because they're denied access for wanting to live in a world that is about valuing everybody and not one of 'you can get it if you've got the money and if you haven't got the money you get nothing'."

A negative impression from the trip is that while recognising that tourism gives its economy a welcome boost, it potentially skews Cuba's intent to create a society where all are treated as equal.

"Having tourism back is a tension," she explains.

"Those people who interact with tourists on a face-to-face level such as taxi drivers have access to income that's not available to someone who's just done a 14-hour shift in a hospital or who is doing fabulous teaching work at a school in the middle of the countryside.

"There is a sense of a project of people being of equal value in Cuba that is wonderful and my concern was our being there as tourists kind of skews that a bit and could risk causing disillusionment among Cubans."

As for the Pinter performances, Andoh says they were a resounding success. The pieces were introduced and contextualised in Spanish by Cuban actors and actresses, with the poems read in Spanish first before the actors interpreted them in English.

"Pinter's humour, the stuff about oppressive regimes, the romantic drama and the interplay between men and women all went down very well," she says.

And she was struck by incredibly low ticket prices of 10 pesos - about five pence - that ensure the arts are not an exclusive preserve for the wealthy people, "allowing for Cubans to be brought up around culture from a very young age."

The five hours in the Museum of the Revolution obviously made a huge impression on Andoh, who confesses that she "wept on every floor" to see how much people endured pre-revolution to get the dictator Batista out.

"You see what people sacrificed and see photos of young women in the movement walking through the forests carrying their rifles. Then 20 years later you see older ladies in government and it's the same women," she says.

"Castro sent medical aid to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, to a country that embargoes Cuba. You have that sense that Cuba's mentality is that we are one human race and as citizens of the world we have a duty to commit to each other."

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